A German court ordered Berlin’s Deutsches Historisches Museum to return a collection of 4,259 posters looted by the Gestapo to the son of Hans Sachs, a Jewish dentist who fled Nazi Germany.
The Bundesgerichtshof in Karlsruhe, the highest court in Germany for civil affairs, today overturned a January 2010 ruling by a Berlin appeals court. Sachs, a retired airline pilot from Sarasota, Florida, has been fighting a legal battle for his father’s posters since a German government panel rebuffed his claim in 2007. The Deutsches Historisches Museum, owned by the German government and the state of Berlin, estimates their value at more than 4.5 million euros ($5.9 million.)
“I can’t describe what this means to me on a personal level,” Sachs said in a statement sent by his U.S. lawyer, Gary Osen. “It feels like vindication for my father, a final recognition of the life he lost and never got back.”
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.
Germany was one of the countries that endorsed that accord. The Culture Ministry has said the government is concerned that a decision in Sachs’s favor may lead to a slew of similar lawsuits by heirs who have been compensated for lost artworks but have not had them restituted.
“The Deutsches Historisches Museum must hand over the Sachs poster collection to the heir,” the court said in a statement published on its website. “The owner of art lost due to Nazi injustices must be able to demand it back from the person who possesses it now, in a case where the work was missing after the war, and therefore couldn’t be returned in line with Allied restitution laws.”
The museum said in a statement that it accepts the court decision and “will meet with Peter Sachs immediately to agree on a speedy conclusion.”
One of the main motivations for fighting the case in court was that “it threw up important fundamental questions about the priority of compensation law,” the museum said. “Whether and how far this decision will have consequences that reach far beyond the individual case can only be determined by thorough analysis of the written explanation of the decision.”
Hans Sachs began collecting posters in his school days. 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.
It 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, and together with Peter, then 14 months old, 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, Hans Sachs made contact with the communist authorities to try to get the posters loaned abroad for exhibitions. He didn’t succeed before his death in 1974.
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.”
Peter Sachs, who is 74, said he didn’t find out about the collection’s survival until 2005 while doing research to trace copies of his father’s magazine. He has said he is willing to pay back the compensation in return for the posters.
The Bundesgerichtshof found that Sachs never lost legal ownership of the posters and his heir therefore has the right to possession.
“The court’s decision today is obviously gratifying after seven years of struggling to get to this point, but it still amazes me that it had to go all the way to the High Court,” Osen, the lawyer, said by e-mail.
The case is BGH V ZR 279/10.
To contact the writer on the story: Catherine Hickley in Berlin at email@example.com.