Peter Sachs, 70, is seeking the return of the 1932 poster "Die Blonde Venus" — The Blonde Venus — produced to promote the film of the same name starring Marlene Dietrich.
The poster is worth an estimated €13,500 (US$20,475), but Sachs hopes if he wins the suit, it will set a precedent for the return of some 4,300 works collected by his father that are now in the possession of the German Historical Museum.
The value of the full collection has been estimated at between US$20 million and US$60 million (€13.2 million to €39.6 million), depending upon its condition, said Sachs' lawyer, Gary Osen.
"Win or lose, I owe it to my father to try, just as he did, to recover his life's work and lifelong passion," Sachs said in a statement.He faces an uphill battle, however, after a German restitution panel, known as the Limbach Commission, ruled last year that the museum was the rightful owner of the poster collection.
Museum spokesman Rudolf Trabold said the suit, filed with the Berlin state court, was a "curious" move by Sachs, given the panel's decision.
"It is very odd that he suddenly doesn't accept it any more," Trabold said.
But Osen, who is based in New Jersey, said the commission's decision went against a general commitment by the German government to return looted art, and that he hoped the lawsuit would help set things straight.
"The return of The Blonde Venus would ... be a powerful rebuke to the German Historical Museum and an affirmation of Germany's long-standing commitment to return stolen works of art to the heirs of Nazi victims."
The Nazis looted an estimated 150,000 pieces of art from Western Europe during World War II and 500,000 pieces from Eastern and Central Europe.
Sachs was only a year old in 1938 when his father's collection of 12,500 posters was seized and his family fled Germany for the United States.
His father, Hans Sachs, died in 1974. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the German Historical Museum inherited what remained of the collection from its East German counterpart in 1990.
The posters include elaborate advertisements for exhibitions, cabarets and consumer products, as well as political propaganda — all rare, with only small original print runs.
In ruling against returning the collection to Peter Sachs, the Limbach Commission cited a letter from Hans Sachs and a 1960s-era compensation payment of 225,000 German marks (approximately US$50,000 at the time) from the West German government as grounds for keeping them in Germany.
In the letter to a West German friend, dated 1966, Hans Sachs said he viewed the payment as appropriate compensation.
But Peter Sachs, of Sarasota, Florida, had argued that the compensation was paid when it was assumed the collection was destroyed in the war, and that once his father found out that part of it had survived, he started trying to get access to it in the East German museum where it ended up.
Since the decision was made, there have been no developments that would alter the facts of the case in any way, Trabold said.
"All of the arguments that were before the Limbach Commission have not changed," he said.
It is not yet clear when the court would decide whether to hear the case.