A German panel ruled against the heirs of four Jewish art dealers Thursday in a complicated case of a monumental collection of medieval religious art known as the Welfenschatz, or Geulph Treasure.
Valued at some 200 million euros, the Christian jewel-encrusted, gold devotional icons, altars and reliquaries, 44 in all, are currently housed within Berlin’s Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation (SPK) museum system. After Thursday’s verdict from the mid-January hearing by the Advisory Commission in connection with the return of Nazi-confiscated art, especially Jewish property, the SPK will apparently retain possession.
The heirs maintained that their ancestors had no choice but to sell the Christian artifacts in 1935 to the Nazi government for less than their value.
The foundation that oversees Berlin’s museums said the collectors weren’t forced to sell the treasures, arguing among other things that the collection was not even in Germany at the time of its sale.
In its recommendation, the commission wrote that, after thoroughly investigating the sale process, it came to the conclusion that it was not a “forced sale due to persecution.” It said it can “not recommend the return of the Welfenschatz to the heirs of the four art dealers and other possible former co-owners.”
The president of the museum foundation, Herrmann Parzinger, welcomed the panel’s conclusion and praised it as a “thorough recommendation … that considers all the facts.”
Germany’s culture minister, Monika Gruetters, said she hopes the Jewish heirs will accept the recommendation.
She said it “does not change … the fact that the German government will continue to do everything to shed light on to the Nazis’ art thefts and, when in doubt, will press for restitution.”
Drawing ire from Jewish community leaders and art restitution experts, Germany, currently in the spotlight for the high-profile $1.4 billion Cornelius Gurlitt trove of suspected Nazi-tainted art in Munich, does not have a legislated system for restitution claims.
In the case of the Guelph Treasure, the heirs of four German-Jewish art dealers have been in negotiations with the SPK since 2008 over the allegedly forced sale. The commission, commonly known as the Limbach Commission after its head Judge Jutta Limbach, represents the culmination of the arbitration battle. But its decisions are not legally binding.
Markus Stoetzel and Mel Urbach, the lawyers for the heirs of the Jewish art dealers, told The Times of Israel Thursday they were shocked and saddened by the decision.
“Our clients, the heirs of the Jewish art dealers, are disappointed about the outcome of the claim, after so many years of fighting for justice. We, the lawyers, are currently analyzing the recommendation of the Limbach Commission and are going to discuss it with our clients,” said Stoetzel.
Over the past decade eight cases have been heard by the commission and six were awarded in favor of the claimants. An additional case was taken through the German court system which eventually ruled in favor of the Jewish heirs. The Guelph collection is the eighth case.
Ahead of the mid-January Limbach Commission hearing, The Times of Israel spoke with both sides of the Guelph case and with several experts in the field of art restitution in a thorough look at the issues surrounding the claims on the fantastical gold Medieval church treasure.
The consensus among experts is the current recourse available in Germany is not sufficient, nor is it always impartial.
Even the “winner” of the Guelph case, president of the SPK Hermann Parzinger, spoke in January of the need for better redress for restitution cases and told The Times of Israel he would not be against a restitution law.
“Now we try to solve in the sense of moral responsibility,” Parzinger said. “The solution is not easy and even if there is a law there still needs to be investigation. The only difference is that the courts would take a definite position.”
“We always try to find a solution because we know very well, unfortunately, what our history was, but when we are convinced, we defend [our art],” said Parzinger. Though originally the foundation had refused, the professor said the Guelph Treasure case was the first time the SPK had agreed to go before the Limbach Commission.
“We said we have no reason to go [before Limbach], but in our eyes the case is quite clear. So if one has good arguments, one should present them,” said Parzinger.
One expert who spoke with The Times of Israel in January said he would never take a case before Limbach. Unlike in the current ruling against the Jewish art dealers’ heirs, most commission decisions have been “barely explained” and “more unpredictable than the previous one,” he said.
The basis on which the commission makes its decisions is not clear, said the expert, and it has no terms of reference or rules of procedure — the fundamental elements of procedural justice.
There are also accusations of political motivations. Those who sit on the commission are not impartial, said experts, and as in the case of the task-force dealing with the mammoth Gurlitt trove, may have connections with museums.
Additionally, in a system in which the Limbach Commission is the highest level of arbitration, there is a huge power imbalance: Massive government-funded institutions essentially hold the right to refuse to negotiate on claims from individuals, as the SPK initially did in the Guelph case.
With world media attention focused on the Gurlitt trove of suspected Nazi-looted art worth $1.4 billion, found in Munich in 2012 (and made public only in November 2013), Jewish community leaders such as Ronald Lauder are calling for an independent international tribunal to impartially hear Holocaust restitution cases.
In January, ahead of the Limbach Commission hearing, Anne Webber from the UK-based Commission for Looted Art in Europe said, “What the Guelph case shows is the urgent need for the creation of a national claims process in Germany, as set out in the 1998 Washington Principles, dedicated to providing fair, just and expeditious solutions.”
“Creating a national claims process would reflect Germany’s commitment that, despite the late hour, claims will be handled consistently, fairly and justly in every case and that works of art found to be looted will be returned speedily to their rightful owners,” said Webber.