The United States Supreme Court on Monday will hear an appeal by Germany and the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation (SPK) asking to dismiss the restitution claim by the heirs of art dealers Saemy Rosenberg Rosenberg, Isaak Rosenbaum, Julius Falk Goldschmidt, and Zacharias Hackenbroch from Frankfurt.
In 1929, the consortium of German-Jewish art dealers purchased for 7.5 million Reichsmarks the Welfenschatz, a.k.a. Guelph Treasure, only to be forced later by agents of Hermann Goering to give it up so the Reichsmarschall could personally present it as a gift to Hitler.
The SPK claims there is “no evidence that it was given to Hitler,” and that “the Guelph Treasure has always been held by the museum since the purchase in 1935,” which the SPK claims was “not a forced sale due to Nazi persecution.”
The consortium received 4.25 million Reichsmarks, a little more than half the value of the treasure in 1935 from the German government, as part of the Nazis’ campaign to strip Germany’s Jews of their possessions. The heirs now demand the return of the treasure, which they estimate to be worth about $260 million.
The Guelph Treasure is a collection of medieval ecclesiastical art originally housed at Brunswick Cathedral in Braunschweig, Germany. Most of the objects were removed from the cathedral in the 17th century. The Treasure takes its name from the princely House of Guelph of Brunswick-Lüneburg. It passed from Brunswick Cathedral into the hands of John Frederick, Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg, in 1671, and remained in the Court Chapel at Hannover until 1803. In 1929, Ernest Augustus, Duke of Brunswick, sold 82 items to the Jewish art dealers from Frankfurt. Items from the Treasure were then exhibited in the United States in 1930–31. The Cleveland Museum of Art purchased nine pieces, and other museums and private collectors also bought parts of the treasure.
In 2008 the heirs of the Jewish art dealers launched a case for restitution in Germany, but in 2014 the Limbach Commission, an Advisory body to the German government, ruled that the case did not meet the criteria for a forced sale due to Nazi persecution.
In February 2015, just days before Germany declared the collection a national cultural treasure, which meant it could not leave the country without explicit permission from Germany’s culture minister, the heirs to the Jewish art dealers sued Germany and the Bode Museum in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, under the Holocaust Expropriated Art Recovery Act, which allows the heirs of victims of the Nazis to file restitution claims in US courts.
In 2018, the Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit ruled that US courts have jurisdiction over the claim under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act of 1976 (FSIA). The appellate court rejected Germany’s arguments that US courts lack jurisdiction and that Germany’s treatment of its Jews in the 1930s should be immune from judicial scrutiny. The FSIA is the same law that provided access to US courts for Maria Altmann in her case against Austria that ultimately resulted in the restitution of Gustav Klimt’s “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer” and other paintings sold under duress to Nazis.
The Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, a semi-private foundation that currently has the Guelph Treasure in its possession, argues that the 1935 forced sale to the German state followed fair negotiations that also resulted in the dealer Saemy Rosenberg receiving precious artifacts from the Berlin museum in a swap deal.
But the plaintiffs argue the sale of the Guelph Treasure was coerced and as such in violation of international law. The plaintiffs’ lawyer, Nicholas O’Donnell, said that some of the people who participated in the forced purchase from the Jewish art dealers were also among the architects of the Final Solution, making any claim of fairness grotesque by definition.
Hermann Parzinger, President of the SPK, said in an email to The Jewish Press: “We welcome the US Supreme Court’s decision to review the lower court’s ruling. We look forward to explaining to the US Supreme Court why this lawsuit seeking the restitution of the Guelph Treasure should not be heard in an American court.”
We’re rooting for the Jews…