German panel: Medieval treasure won't return to Jewish heirs

Haaretz 22 March 2014
By Ofer Aderet

The German commission says the owners did not sell the collection of Christian art to Nazis under duress.

The panel said the price paid was reasonable and there was no evidence of “a persecution-forced sale.”

The ruling culminated a six-year battle over the so-called Guelph Treasure of gold, silver and gem-studded relics valued in the hundreds of millions of euros. The collection, today consisting of 44 pieces, is the largest German Church treasure in public hands. It will now remain in a Berlin museum overseen by the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation.

Israel had asked the German government a few months ago to act to award the treasure to the Jewish heirs. The heirs must now decide whether to continue their fight in court or accept the panel’s ruling. Although the ruling is not legally binding, it is considered to carry moral weight.

The Guelph Treasure of ecclesiastic relics had belonged since 1671 to the Duchy of Brunswick and Lueneburg. The treasure consisted of 82 pieces of medieval Christian art from the 11th to 15th centuries including paintings, precious stones and holy vessels. In 1929, Duke Ernest-Augustus of Brunswick-Lueneburg found himself in financial straits and sold the collection to four Jewish art merchants from Frankfurt for 7.5 million Reichsmarks.

The merchants wanted to sell the collection at a profit, but during the Great Depression they only managed to sell about half of it for 2.5 million Reichsmarks. The rest was taken to Amsterdam, where the merchants had fled in 1934 after the Nazis’ rise to power.

Hermann Goering, who was known for plundering works of art, tried to coerce the Jewish owners to sell the collection at a loss. In 1935, a German bank bought the collection from the Jewish owners in the name of the Prussian government, which Goering headed, for 4.25 million Reichsmarks.

Today the treasure is held by the Prussian Heritage Foundation, which is run by the German government. The collection is on display in the Bode Museum on Berlin’s Museum Island.

In 2008 the heirs of the Jewish art merchants claimed the collection from the foundation, saying it had been sold to the Nazis under duress. They said that after the sale, Germany confiscated some of the money that had been paid.

A few months ago Culture Minister Limor Livnat sent a letter to her German counterpart saying that awarding the treasure to the Jewish heirs was important “to the Jewish people, especially Holocaust survivors in Israel and around the world.” One source told Haaretz that a German delegation headed by Culture Minister Monika Gruetters visited Israel last month and discussed the matter with Livnat.

The Prussian Heritage Foundation, however, said the purchase price was reasonable, taking into consideration that the Great Depression was under way. It said the owners were satisfied with the deal and there was no evidence the Nazis had forced them to sell.

The panel added that the collection was not on German soil when it was sold, so it was not Germany’s responsibility. It said that despite the Depression, the merchants sold the collection for 90 percent of the price they had paid.
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