Germany Will Appeal Berlin Court Ruling on Nazi-Looted Posters

Bloomberg 6 March 2009
By Catherine Hickley

The German government will appeal a Berlin court ruling ordering the Deutsches Historisches Museum to return a poster looted by the Gestapo to Peter Sachs, the son of a dentist forced to flee Germany before World War II.

Sachs, a retired airline pilot from Sarasota, Florida, filed a lawsuit last year after a German government panel rebuffed his claim. A Berlin court on Feb. 10 said the museum should return one poster looted by the Gestapo to Sachs in a ruling that would allow him to claim 4,250 posters from his father’s collection, valued at more than 4.4 million euros ($5.7 million).

The ruling has “fundamental significance for the restitution of property confiscated by the Nazis,” said a spokesman for Culture Minister Bernd Neumann who declined to be identified by name. Finance Minister Peer Steinbrueck “has insisted that the decision should be clarified,” the spokesman said in a telephone interview today.

The Deutsches Historisches Museum, located on Berlin’s Unter den Linden boulevard, is owned by the federal government and the state of Berlin. Germany was among 44 countries that agreed to the non-binding Washington Principles in 1998, pledging to restitute art looted by the Nazis.

“This is a major disappointment,” Matthias Druba of Schwarz Kelwing Wicke Westphal, Sachs’s Berlin lawyer, said in a telephone interview. “The government is trying to bypass the Washington Principles. It is impossible to do justice to the past and hold on to these items. We are sure we will win.”

‘With Regret’

The Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany said it “acknowledged with regret” the government’s decision.

“With this step once again the interests of the victims come second to legal principles,” Georg Heuberger, the Claims Conference’s representative in Germany, said in an e-mailed statement from Frankfurt today. “This goes against the spirit of the Washington Declaration. It would have been possible to reach an amicable agreement if both sides had shown goodwill.”

Hans Sachs, Peter Sachs’s father, was an industrious collector, beginning in his school days. He published a poster magazine called “Das Plakat,” founded a society, held exhibitions and gave lectures. His collection, which included works by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Ludwig Hohlwein, Lucian Bernhard and Jules Cheret, contained 12,500 posters and was at the time the biggest in the world.

Goebbels’s Museum

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.

Sachs 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. with Peter, who was then 14 months old.

The father 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. Presuming 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 part of his collection was still intact in East Berlin, Hans Sachs made contact with the communist regime’s authorities.

‘Emotional Loss’

In a letter to the museum, Hans 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 remove the sense of emotional loss which “won’t heal for the rest of my life.”

A German government panel headed by the former Constitutional Court judge Jutta Limbach rejected Peter Sachs’s claim for the posters in 2007, saying his father had accepted compensation and never tried to get the posters back.

The Berlin court decision contradicted that recommendation -- which was not a legally binding ruling -- by saying that Sachs had never relinquished his collection.

Though the ruling only ordered the return of one poster -- a magazine advertisement showing a red bulldog called “Dogge” by the artist Thomas Theodor Heine -- it established Sachs as the rightful owner of the collection, according to Judge Norbert Stobbe. The court rejected a counterclaim by the Deutsches Historisches Museum asking it to declare the museum the owner.

Peter Sachs, who is 71, said he didn’t find out about the collection’s survival until 2005 while doing research to trace copies of his father’s magazine.

The government has until March 12 to lodge its appeal.

The case is LG Berlin, 19 O 116/08.

To contact the writer on the story: Catherine Hickley in Berlin at
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