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Explained: What is the Nazi art dispute case being tried in the US Supreme Court

The plaintiffs of the case argue that their Jewish ancestors were forced to sell the rare collection to the Nazis during the Holocaust.

Written by Adrija Roychowdhury , Edited by Explained Desk | New Delhi | Updated: December 11, 2020 10:59:03 am
FILE - In this Jan. 9, 2014 file picture the medieval Dome Reliquary (13th century) of the Guelph Treasure, is displayed at the Bode Museum in Berlin. (AP)

Earlier this week, the American Supreme Court began hearing a 12-year-old dispute over a collection of medieval eccelestiacal art, known as the Guelph Treasure, which is on display at the Bode Museum in Berlin. The plaintiffs of the case argue that their Jewish ancestors were forced to sell the rare collection to the Nazis during the Holocaust. At this point, the supreme court is hearing oral arguments on whether the heirs of the collection’s dealers can seek retrieval of these objects in American courts.

What is the story behind the Guelph Treasure?

It is a collection of 42 pieces of church artwork, including altars and crosses, made between the 11th and 15th centuries. It is named after one of Europe’s oldest princely houses, ‘The house of Guelph’ of Brunswick-Luneberg. Originally, the collection was housed at the Brunswick cathedral in Braunschweig, Germany. In 1929, the Duke of Brunswick sold off 82 pieces from the collection to a consortium of Frankfurt-based Jewish art dealers, Saemy Rosenberg, Isaak Rosenbaum, Julius Falk Goldschmidt and Zacharias Hackenbroch. Parts of the collection were exhibited in the United States and were bought by the Cleveland museum of art.

Jed Leiber, one of the plaintiffs, shows photos of his grandfather Saemy Rosenberg’s life at home Thursday, Dec. 3, 2020, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

In 1935, 42 pieces of the collection were sold off to agents of Hermann Goring in the Netherlands. Goring was one of the most powerful leaders of the Nazi party and also the founder of the Gestapo secret police. When Hitler was named the Chancellor of Germany in 1933, Goring was made the prime minister of Prussia. Goring may have then gifted the treasure to the Nazi leader Adolf Hitler. However, there is much disagreement over this claim.

The plaintiffs in the case being heard in the supreme court are the heirs of the Jewish consortium of art dealers. They claim that while their ancestors had bought the collection for 7.5m reichsmark in 1929, they were forced to sell it off at a reduced price of 4.25m reichsmark five years later as part of the Nazis’ campaign to persecute Jewish citizens and rob them of all their possessions.

The case for the restitution of the Guelph Treasure was first lodged in 2008 in Germany. However, it was turned down by the Limbach commission, which is an advisory body on the return of cultural property seized as a result of Nazi persecution.

Jed Leiber shows a photo of his grandfather Saemy Rosenberg as a cavalry officer with the German army during WWI at home Thursday, Dec. 3, 2020, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

It is to be noted that the Nazis had confiscated thousands of pieces of art from across Europe as part of their genocidal campaign against the Jews. It has been described as the ‘greatest displacement of art’ in human history. Consequently, the Limback Commission was formed in 2003 for the restitution of such pieces of art. However, in this case, the commission claims that the Guelph Treasure was not a forced sale. The commission’s findings are based on the fact that the Guelph Treasure was located outside Germany since 1930 and that the German state had no access to it. Further, the commission also claims that the price paid to the dealers matched the market value of the art work.

In 2015, the heirs of the Jewish art deals took up the matter once again, and this time they sued Germany and the Bode Museum in the United States District court in the District of Columbia. 📣 Follow Express Explained on Telegram

Why is the case being tried in an American court?

In 2018, the federal appeals court in Washington DC ruled in favour of the plaintiffs stating that the taking of the art collection amounted to the commission of genocide. The case against Germany in the United States has been brought under the terms of the Holocaust Expropriated Art recovery act of 2016, which allows victims of Nazi regime to file restitution claims in the US.

The case has ended up in an American court on account of a rarely used clause in the US’ Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA). While the act generally does not allow foreign states and their agencies to be tried in court, it has made an exception for lawsuits concerning the taking of property in violation of international law. The act, however, is silent on whether it applies to claims made by a nation’s own citizens against unlawful takings in the US court.

Jed Leiber walks through a hallway with art decorating the walls at home Thursday, Dec. 3, 2020, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

Germany and the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation maintain that for a taking to go against international law under the FSIA, it must be done against a non-citizen. They argue that US courts should abstain from lawsuits over a foreign nation’s domestic actions under principles of ‘international comity’, and that Germany is the proper jurisdiction for this case. Further, they also state that a ruling by the US court in favour of the plaintiffs could lead to the FSIA being used to resolve all kinds of international disputes and not just art restitution. They argue that it would then allow foreigners to sue their nations in US courts for human rights violations that happened in those nations.

Germany and the cultural commission have the support of the Trump administration as well. One lower court judge noted a ruling against the Germans “would likely place an enormous strain not only upon our courts but, more to the immediate point, upon our country’s diplomatic relations with any number of foreign nations”.

The plaintiffs’ lawyer, Nicholas O’ Donell, however, noted in October that the sale of the Guelph Treasure was directed and decided by Goring himself. He said: “If such a coerced sale is not a taking in violation of international law, then nothing is.”

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