Berlin - A Berlin museum is refusing to return a priceless collection of 42 medieval golden containers, arguing that the German state of Prussia bought them fair and square from the four Jewish art dealers who owned the treasures from 1930 to 1935.
The friction brings to a head a simmering dispute over whether Germany must restore all the art obtained from Holocaust victims.
Collectors and the Nazi German state paid in the 1930s to acquire art from Jewish owners, many of whom managed to later flee Germany. The law says that where those sales were unfair, those contracts are void and the art must be restituted to the heirs.
The dispute over what is known as the Treasure of the Guelphs, now displayed in the Berlin Applied Arts Museum, focuses on whether any sale price negotiated with Jewish vendors after the Nazi takeover in 1933 could be described as fair.
The Prussian Culture Foundation, which administers Berlin's royal collections and many 20th-century acquisitions in the capital's superb museums and palaces, is defending the notion of a fair sale. It issued on May 29 a detailed exposition of its stance that Prussia had paid the 1935 market price for the golden hoard.
World art prices, which have multiplied many times over since the 1930s, are always difficult to estimate, often depending on how many buyers are out there, whether export is allowed and how a dealer negotiates a sale.
The foundation argues that from 1931 onwards, even before the Nazis came to power, there were only two potential buyers for the Treasure of the Guelphs: the state of Prussia or Germany as a whole. The sacred items, among them a small inlaid altar and a reliquary in copper and ivory, were the property of the church of Saint Blaise in Brunswick until 1671, when the local branch of the royal house of Guelph acquired the original 82 items.
Zacharias Max Hackenbroch, Isaak Rosenbaum, Saemy Rosenberg and Julius Falk Goldschmidt jointly acquired the family collection from Duke Ernst-August of Braunschweig-Lueneburg, whose fortunes suffered in the 1929 Great Depression.
The Prussian Foundation contends in its 12-page statement that a consortium of Frankfurt art dealers overpaid for the items of Christian sacred art in 1930 when they bought them for 8 million reichsmarks.
The treasures date from the 11th to the 15th century and illustrate the sophistication of medieval German goldsmiths. The treasures were exhibited in the United States, where 40 were sold. Museums in Chicago and Cleveland acquired some. Negotiations began when the items were abroad, and Prussia acquired the remainder in 1935 for 4.2 million reichsmarks.
Markus Stoetzel, a German lawyer representing the heirs of the four dealers, applied to the foundation more than a year ago for full disclosure and then filed a demand for restitution, based on newly discovered documents. He says those papers show that the dealers sold the golden vessels in 1935 for far less than their true value because their dealerships were in business difficulties. This, he says, can be traced back to the persecution of Jews by Adolf Hitler's dictatorship.
Stoetzel said the Prussian art authorities had an unfair negotiating advantage. He claims the collection was worth double what was paid. What is more, he claims the payment was never handed over.
The dispute is politically delicate for the Foundation, which has also faced demands from Egypt to give back the pharaonic bust of Queen Nefertiti and from Turkey to hand back the Pergamon Altar.
It has refused to accept that there was any unfair inducement on the art dealers to sell the gold items. It said they did not have to repatriate the items, the price reflected world values in the 1930s and the sale was on customary 1930s terms.
Stoetzel does not agree. He says the Foundation has not even proved that the dealers actually received the agreed price. He accuses it of inverting the usual principles on the restitution of confiscated art, which require a museum to demonstrate a legal provenance for its treasures.
To date, the Foundation has had a better record than many other German state collections, and has done extensive provenance research. In 22 out of 29 cases it has dealt with since 1999, it has returned art and documents to Jewish heirs.
The Foundation's chairman Hermann Parzinger and lawyer Stoetzel both say they will meet to discuss the treasure claim in detail.