German culture foundation angers Jewish groups over Holocaust dating

The Art Newspaper 23 November 2015
By Julia Michalska

1935 sale of the Guelph Treasure predates the Holocaust “by several years”, Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation said in US court papers

A statement made in court papers filed by the state-run Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation (SPK) has angered Jewish groups.

On 29 October, the SPK, which oversees Berlin’s state museums, filed a motion to dismiss a US lawsuit over the return of the Guelph Treasure, one of the world’s finest collections of Medieval ecclesiastical art, valued at more than $200m. The lawsuit was brought by Alan Philipp and Gerald Stiebel, the descendants of two Jewish art dealers, who were part of a consortium that sold the collection in 1935 to the Prussian state that was then under the rule of Hermann Goering.

In the motion, the SPK says the “alleged taking of the Welfenschatz [Guelph Treasure] in 1935 predated the Holocaust by several years”. The statement has attracted criticism. Rabbi Abraham Cooper, the associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, told the Jewish Week the claim was “simply disgusting and dangerous”. He said: “For a Jew in Germany in 1935, life in Germany was anything but normal. The fact that it was sold in 1935—you would have to prove to me there was no linkage.”

Nicholas O’Donnell of Sullivan & Worcester, the law firm representing Philipp and Stiebel, says: “By any measure of the Holocaust, things had already descended to a horrific level by 1935, when German Jews were being ostracised, beaten and driven from their homes and property. There is a creeping sense in this motion and other pronouncements in the past two years, specifically in the context of art looting, that the early to mid-1930s are seen through rose-tinted glasses, something we haven’t seen from German authorities until this recent shift. That’s really dangerous.”

A spokesman for the SPK said in a statement that the motion “is not a contention of when the Nazi persecution of Jews began”, and the institution “regrets if others interpreted it in that way”.

Philipp and Stiebel, who argue that the Nazi government had forced the sale of the collection, first submitted their claim to the SPK in 2008. After an internal investigation, the case was referred to the Limbach Commission, a spoliation advisory board, in 2012. The commission concluded last year that the sale of the 40-piece collection “was not a compulsory sale due to persecution” but that the Prussian state had paid a fair market price for it.

The recommendation was non-binding, so in February this year, the descendants filed a civil lawsuit against the SPK and the German government – which have now requested the dismissal of the case – in the district court in Washington, DC. O’Donnell plans to file his opposition by the end of January.
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