More than 70 years after the fall of the Third Reich, a U.S. appeals court has ruled that American heirs to property stolen by the Nazis have a right to have their cases heard in their county’s legal system. The decision could have broad repercussions for restitution in general, as it gives claimants an additional recourse to pressure recalcitrant owners and countries on claims.
The case pitted the heirs of owners of a multi-million dollar art trove, known as the Guelph Treasure, against the German government. After a German commission dismissed a claim that the works had been sold under duress from the Nazi regime, the claimants took their case to U.S. courts. Lawyers for the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, which oversees Berlin’s Bode Museum, where the collection is on display, have argued that the doctrine of “sovereign immunity” protects them from litigation in a foreign legal system.
“It is very encouraging — after 70 years — to see a U.S. judge rule in favor of Jewish victims and against Germany,” Mel Urbach, an attorney specializing in Holocaust-era restitution cases who represented the plaintiffs told Hamodia. “Germany is now subject to claims in American courts for events that occurred in Germany in the 1930s.”
The ruling is likely to be appealed, but if upheld, Mr. Urbach was confident that “economic interests” would ultimately compel Germany to comply to the rulings of U.S. courts, even if their officials take issue with conclusions.
The foundation fighting claims, known by its German acronym SKP, remained steadfast in its position regarding both the venue of a foreign court as well as the claims of a forced sale.
“It is SPK’s long-held belief that this case should not be heard in U.S. court,” said Prof. Dr. Hermann Parzinger, President of SPK in a statement. “SPK is now analyzing the ruling and considering its options. Having researched all of the facts and historical background carefully, SPK is also convinced that this case has no merit, as the Guelph Treasure’s sale more than 80 years ago was not a forced sale due to Nazi persecution.”
The Guelph Treasure includes dozens of gilded and jeweled reliquary art from the 11th to 15th centuries that belonged to Prussian aristocrats from the House of Brunswick. In 1929, the Duke of Brunswick sold off the collection, with 82 items going to a consortium of Jewish art dealers, Saemy Rosenberg, Isaak Rosenbaum, Julius Falk, Arthur Goldschmidt and Zacharias Hackenbroch.
The pieces were displayed throughout Europe and America for several years, and many were gradually sold off to museums and private collectors. In 1935, the remaining 40 items were sold to a German Bank acting as an agent for the Prussian State, which at that time was led by Herman Goering, who, in addition to his positions as commander of the Luftwaffe and president of the Reichstag, served as the region’s prime minister.
In 2008, a group of descendants of members of the consortium advanced a claim that the owners had been forced to sell the art works for far below their value by the Nazi regime as part of a plan hatched by Goering and Adolf Hitler to “save the Welfenschatz,” as the collection is known in German. Furthermore, they claimed that the money was never fully accessible to the dealers as much of it was claimed by the state in “flight taxes” — duties set up to strip Jews and others who fled Nazi German of their wealth. Some estimates put the collection’s present day value at $226 million.
German officials disputed the story and said that the dealer’s plans to profit handsomely from the collection were thwarted by the market crash of 1929, which occurred less than a month after their purchase. SPK says that after failing to find a single buyer, the group was forced to sell it off in pieces and that the final sale to the Prussian government was legitimate.
In 2012, a German commission that deals with Holocaust-era claims issued a non-binding advisory that the sale was not “coerced” and did not recommend return of the Guelph Treasure to the claimants.
“It is remarkable that Germany would defend the actions of leading Nazis in this day and age in order to hold onto a Jewish collection — they are defending Goering,” said Mr. Urbach. “This is unacceptable and distorts history. It seems like the court feels this case deserves its day in court. We would hope that Germany would stop using these delaying tactics and stop using technical defenses.”
In 2015, three of the descendants, Jed Leiber, Alan Philipp and Gerald Stiebel, filed their complaint in U.S. courts.
The present ruling, handed down Friday by The United States District Court for the District of Columbia, allows their claim to proceed on American shores.
Abraham Biderman, co-chairman of the World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO), told Hamodia that the ruling is “very positive” for the cause of Holocaust reparations, but was hesitant as to how broadly its effects would be felt.
“I’m not sure how major of an impact this will have, it’s sure to be appealed, but the ability to bring cases in U.S. courts could certainly be important,” he said.
Mr. Biederman said he felt that despite the particulars of this case, Germany, which already has a robust reparations system, would be the least affected, but that countries who have lagged on the return of Jewish property could find themselves under additional pressure from American-based litigation.
“We have a lot of agreements with Germany already and they have conceded that heirless property [seized by the Nazis] belongs to the Jewish community, but if you could sue Poland or Hungary in a U.S. court, it could have a profound impact.”