WASHINGTON (CN) – The D.C. Circuit on Tuesday sided with the heirs of Jewish art dealers in an effort to recover works stolen from their family during World War II.
Writing for the court, U.S. Circuit Judge David Tatel said lawyers for the Republic of Germany failed to convince the three-judge panel that a lower court erred when it refused to grant the government’s motion to dismiss the heirs’ claims.
The dispute involves the so-called Welfenschatz collection, made up of works that date primarily from the eleventh to fifteenth centuries.
According to the plaintiffs, the works were housed for generations in Germany’s Brunswick Cathedral but eventually shipped to Amsterdam. During early days of Nazi rule, the collection was sold to the Republic of Germany after years of “direct persecution” and “physical peril to themselves and their family members,” the plaintiffs claim.
The plaintiffs assert the art was then given as a “surprise gift” to Adolf Hitler and later recovered by U.S. troops as the war winded down. From there it was returned to the German state through an agency devoted to returning ill begotten items to their heirs, the underlying complaint claims.
The heirs sought to retrieve the items from the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation (also known as SPK) in 2008. In 2012, the heirs and SPK agreed to submit the restitution request to the Advisory Commission in Germany, which determined in 2014 that the Guelph Treasure’s sale in 1935 was not a forced sale due to Nazi persecution. The heirs then brought their lawsuit in the U.S. in 2015.
“The Welfenschatz was more than just art. As Germany acknowledges, ‘the Consortium bought [the Welfenschatz] not for pleasure or display, but as business inventory, to re-sell for profit,’” Tatel wrote.
“[Nazi art dealers] “routinely went through the bizarre pretense of ‘negotiations’ with and ‘purchase’ from” powerless counterparties,” Tatel wrote. “It was within that context, the heirs allege, that the Nazis pressured the Consortium to sell the Welfenschatz for well below market value.”
Tatel also dismissed Germany’s claim that siding with the heirs would unfairly increase the jurisdiction of the US court system.
“The United States has repeatedly made clear that it favors [domestic litigation of Nazi-era art-looting claims]” he wrote, pointing to the Holocaust Expropriated Art Recovery Act which explicitly extended the statute of limitations on the recovery of art obtained by Nazis during the holocaust.
In a statement, Dr. Hermann Parzinger, president of SPK, said “It is SPK’s long-held belief that this case should not be heard in U.S. court, and we remain committed to demonstrating that the case has no merit, as the Guelph Treasure’s sale more than 80 years ago was not a forced sale due to Nazi persecution.”
“In fact, the merits of the Welfenschatz case have already been considered by the German ‘Advisory Commission on the return of cultural property seized as a result of Nazi persecution, especially Jewish property’, which concluded in 2014 that restitution was not appropriate,” Parzinger said.
SPK and its legal team are evaluating the ruling and considering their options.