The Jewish Claims Conference agreed to cede ownership of a collection of antiquities to the Leipzig museum that has housed them for 80 years, ending a dispute with the grandson of Georg Steindorff, the Nazi-era owner.
After winning a 16-year legal battle against Leipzig University to secure the 163 artifacts, the Claims Conference said today that the collection will remain where it is. A Berlin court ruled on May 26 that the sale was made under duress and thus invalid. It ordered the collection to be transferred to the Claims Conference -- against the wishes of the heir.
Eighty-eight-year-old Thomas Hemer of Nevada had sought to keep the collection in the Leipzig University Egyptian museum named after his grandfather, as reported by Bloomberg on May 21. Steindorff, an eminent Egyptologist of Jewish origin, escaped Nazi Germany in 1939. Hemer argued that the university department was his grandfather’s life work and his legacy should stay in its museum.
“Important for us is determining that the loss was due to persecution,” Roman Haller, the director of the Claims Conference in Germany, said in a statement sent by e-mail. The court judgement “sends a special signal to all museums, galleries and auction houses,” he said. “The circumstances under which the cultural assets reached the museums must be transparent: We owe this to the victims.”
The antiquities include a 4,000-year-old Nagada bowl, ancient clay figures, early Islamic ceramics and Greek and Roman objects. Steindorff sold those acquisitions to the university for 8,000 Reichsmarks (about $3,200 at the time) in 1937 and they have been there ever since.
“There are no financial transactions in this agreement,” Dietrich Raue, the curator of the Leipzig museum, said in a telephone interview. “It is an outcome that everyone can be happy about.”
Steindorff led archaeological excursions to Egypt between 1903 and 1931. He complemented his own finds with objects that he purchased for his teaching practice and integrated into the university collection. He remained in Germany until March 1939, eventually obtaining a passport through connections and leaving for the U.S. via Bremen. He died in 1951 at the age of 90.
The Claims Conference, which describes its mission as “securing a measure of justice for Jewish victims of Nazi persecution,” also has a legal remit to recover property confiscated from Jews before World War II in eastern Germany in cases where no heirs have stepped forward to stake a claim.
According to its website, the group has used more than $1 billion of revenue from such claims to fund social, educational and research programs.
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