A German court said a retired U.S. airline pilot is the rightful owner of his father’s poster collection, seized by the Gestapo in 1938 and currently housed in a Berlin museum.
Peter Sachs of Sarasota, Florida, filed a lawsuit against the Deutsches Historisches Museum last year. The Berlin museum possesses about 4,250 posters that once belonged to Sachs’s father, Hans Sachs, who was arrested and sent to a concentration camp in 1938 and later managed to flee Nazi Germany with his wife and son Peter, then aged 14 months.
Judge Norbert Stobbe said today the Berlin court will consult further on whether it will require the museum to hand over the collection to Peter Sachs. Its acknowledgement that 71- year-old Sachs is the owner contrasts with a ruling by a government panel led by former Constitutional Court Judge Jutta Limbach, which rebuffed Sachs’s claim in January 2007.
“The court made clear that there is no doubt Peter Sachs is the legal owner, so the government will have to recognize this,” said Matthias Druba of Schwarz Kelwing Wicke Westpfahl, the German lawyer representing Sachs. The Deutsches Historisches Museum, located on Berlin’s Unter den Linden boulevard, is owned by the federal government and the state of Berlin.
Druba said he expects the judges to announce their final decision in a written ruling tomorrow.
Stobbe today rejected the museum’s argument that Hans Sachs, who died in 1974, had voluntarily relinquished ownership of his collection. The museum estimates the value of the surviving posters at more than 4.4 million euros ($5.8 million.)
“We cannot see how Hans Sachs could have relinquished his property,” Stobbe told the hearing in Berlin.
The Nazis stole about 650,000 artworks, the New York-based Jewish Claims Conference estimates. International restitution guidelines agreed in 1998 -- known as the Washington Principles --have paved the way for a number of high-profile claims for art in museums by Nazi victims and their heirs.
Hans Sachs was an industrious collector, beginning in his schooldays. He published a poster magazine called “Das Plakat,” founded a society, held exhibitions and gave lectures. His collection, including works by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Ludwig Hohlwein, Lucian Bernhard and Jules Cheret, totaled 12,500 posters and was at the time the biggest in the world.
The collection was seized in 1938, and when Gestapo officers carted it off, they told Sachs that Joseph Goebbels wanted his posters for a new museum wing dedicated to “business” art. The Deutsches Historisches Museum argued that Sachs had already by then handed over his collection to a German banker, so was not the legal owner when it was seized. The court in Berlin rejected that argument.
Sachs, a dentist, was arrested on Nov. 9, 1938, the night of the pogrom against Jews known as Kristallnacht, and sent to Sachsenhausen concentration camp. His wife’s efforts got him freed after three weeks and they fled to the U.S.
He had smuggled out some Toulouse-Lautrec posters, which he sold to feed his family as they began a new life. He never saw his collection again. Assuming it hadn’t survived the war, he accepted compensation of 225,000 deutsche marks (about $50,000 at the time) from the West German government in 1961.
After discovering in 1966 that some of his collection was still intact in East Berlin, he made contact with the communist regime’s authorities to try to get the posters loaned abroad for exhibitions. He didn’t succeed before his death.
In a letter to the museum, Sachs said he felt compensated for his loss by the West German authorities and was happy to learn that the surviving posters were housed together in the museum. He added, though, that nothing could take away the sense of emotional loss which “won’t heal for the rest of my life.”
“I am of the opinion that Hans Sachs wanted the collection to remain intact in a museum,” said Hans Ottomeyer, the director of the Deutsches Historisches Museum.
Peter Sachs said he didn’t find out about the collection’s survival until 2005 while doing research to trace copies of his father’s magazine. Sachs didn’t attend today’s court hearing.
The Limbach commission ruled in 2007 that Sachs had accepted the compensation and never tried to get his collection back. The dispute was only the second to be handled by Limbach’s panel, which can only be called if both parties agree.
The judge asked the parties at today’s hearing whether they could reach agreement on a financial settlement that would allow the posters to stay in the museum. Both sides said earlier attempts to reach such a settlement had failed. The case is LG Berlin, 19 O 116/08.
To contact the writer on the story: Catherine Hickley in Berlin at +49-30-700106-224, or firstname.lastname@example.org.