U.S. court rul­ing could bring more suits over Nazi-looted art

The Washington Times Daily - - METRO - BY SAM HANANEL

The heirs of Nazi-era Jewish art deal­ers have spent nearly a decade try­ing to per­suade Ger­man of­fi­cials to re­turn a col­lec­tion of me­dieval relics val­ued at more than $250 mil­lion.

But they didn’t make much head­way un­til they filed a law­suit in an Amer­i­can court.

The rel­a­tives won a round last week when a fed­eral judge ruled that Ger­many can be sued in the United States over claims the so-called Guelph Trea­sure was sold un­der duress in 1935.

It’s the first time a court has re­quired Ger­many to de­fend it­self in the U.S. against charges of looted Nazi art, and ex­perts say it could en­cour­age other de­scen­dants of peo­ple who suf­fered dur­ing the Holo­caust to pur­sue claims in court.

The case also is among the first af­fected by a law passed in Congress last year that makes it eas­ier for heirs of victims of Nazi Ger­many to sue over con­fis­cated art.

“It open all kinds of other claims based on forced sales in Nazi Ger­many to ju­ris­dic­tion in U.S. courts if the facts sup­port it,” said Ni­cholas O’Don­nell, an at­tor­ney rep­re­sent­ing the heirs.

The col­lec­tion in­cludes gold crosses stud­ded with gems, or­nate sil­ver­work and other relics that once be­longed to Prus­sian aris­to­crats. The heirs of the art deal­ers — Jed Leiber, Ger­ald Stiebel, and Alan Philipp — say their rel­a­tives were forced to sell the relics in a co­erced trans­ac­tion for a frac­tion of its mar­ket value.

The con­sor­tium of deal­ers from Frank­furt had pur­chased the col­lec­tion in 1929 from the Duke of Brunswick. They had man­aged to sell about half of the pieces to mu­se­ums and col­lec­tors, but the re­main­ing works were sold in 1935 to the state of Prus­sia, which at the time was gov­erned by Nazi leader Her­mann Go­er­ing.

Fol­low­ing the sale, Go­er­ing pre­sented the works as a gift to Adolf Hitler, ac­cord­ing to court doc­u­ments. The col­lec­tion has been on dis­play in Ber­lin since the early 1960s and is con­sid­ered the largest col­lec­tion of Ger­man church trea­sure in public hands.

Ger­man of­fi­cials claim the sale was vol­un­tary and say the low price was a prod­uct of the Great De­pres­sion and the col­lapse of Ger­many’s mar­ket for art. In 2014, a spe­cial Ger­man com­mis­sion set up to re­view dis­puted resti­tu­tion cases con­cluded it was not a forced sale due to per­se­cu­tion and rec­om­mended the col­lec­tion stay at the Ber­lin mu­seum.

Two of the deal­ers fled Ger­many fol­low­ing the sale of the Guelph Trea­sure. The other died there, although his chil­dren man­aged to get out.

The heirs de­cided to sue Ger­many and the Prus­sian Cul­tural Her­itage Foun­da­tion in U.S. court a year later. Ger­many tried to dis­miss the case un­der the For­eign Sovereign Im­mu­ni­ties Act, which ex­empts for­eign states from be­ing sued in the U.S. It makes an ex­cep­tion for prop­erty taken in vi­o­la­tion of in­ter­na­tional law.

U.S. Dis­trict Judge Colleen Kol­lar-Kotelly in the Dis­trict of Columbia said the heirs could ar­gue that the sale was a “part of the geno­cide of the Jewish peo­ple dur­ing the Holo­caust and, ac­cord­ingly, vi­o­lated in­ter­na­tional law.”

The rul­ing will en­cour­age other fam­i­lies to pur­sue stolen art cases in Amer­i­can courts, said Jonathan Petropou­los, a his­tory pro­fes­sor at Clare­mont McKenna Col­lege who spe­cial­izes in Nazi art resti­tu­tion.

“The Ger­man sys­tem for civil lit­i­ga­tion presents so many ob­sta­cles to claimants,” Mr. Petropou­los said. “Victims and heirs de­serve their day in court in front of an im­par­tial judge.”

Ger­many can ap­peal the rul­ing. At­tor­ney Jonathan Freiman said Ger­man of­fi­cials are re­view­ing their op­tions.

“This is a dis­pute that was al­ready re­solved on the mer­its in Ger­many, and it doesn’t be­long in a U.S. court,” Mr. Freiman said.

Thou­sands of works of art plun­dered by the Nazis have been re­turned to their right­ful own­ers or fam­i­lies over the years from Ger­many and other coun­tries. The Lim­bach Com­mis­sion in Ger­many was formed in 2003 to con­sider resti­tu­tion in con­tested cases where op­pos­ing par­ties can’t reach an agree­ment. But it has been crit­i­cized for mov­ing too slowly.

The Ger­man gov­ern­ment an­nounced sev­eral re­forms last year in­tended to im­prove the process.

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