In October 1935, Prussian premier Hermann Goering proudly announced in a much circulated press release that he would soon present Adolf Hitler with a “surprise gift” — an extraordinary collection of medieval gold artifacts known as the Welfenschatz, or Guelph treasure.
Forged of jewel-encrusted gold at the dawn of the second millennium CE, the dozens of Christian devotional masterpieces — ornate crucifixes, reliquaries of improbable detail, portable altars — were originally housed in the Brunswick Cathedral. In the 17th century the rich collection was removed from the cathedral and became the property of Roman Catholic convert John Frederick, Duke of Brunswick-Luneburg.
Hundreds of years later in 1929, his descendant Ernest Augustus, the last reigning monarch of the House of Hanover, sold them to a group of Jewish art dealers for ready cash.
Subsequently, as reported in an October 30, 1935, Baltimore Sun article, “Long owned by the Dukes of Brunswick, the treasure was purchased by a consortium of art dealers and sold to the government of Prussia” — and thus came into the hands of the Nazis. The article records the treasure’s value at an impressive $2.5 million — truly a gift worthy of a Fuhrer.
Currently estimated at some $100-300 million, the Guelph treasure — today on display in a Berlin museum — is now the focus of a struggle for ownership rights between the Jewish heirs of “the consortium” and the SPK, the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, which overseas the museums in Berlin.
Ahead of a mid-January hearing in Berlin at the “Advisory Commission in connection with the return of Nazi-confiscated art, especially Jewish property” (commonly known as the Limbach Commission after its head Judge Jutta Limbach), The Times of Israel spoke with both sides of the case, each equally convinced its claims to the treasure are legal, logical and clear.
Each side presents compelling evidence, historical records and expert opinions. But beyond the documented facts of the story, at the heart of this complex case is the overriding question: What is the likelihood that a group of Jewish art dealers could have negotiated a fair deal for a sale — presumably overseen by Goering himself — in 1935 Germany?
Although this may soon change, Germany does not currently have formal legislation dealing with art restitution. Post-World War II Allied restitution law states, however, that art sales by Jewish collectors and dealers in Germany after 1933 are presumed to be forced — in acknowledgment of the institutional duress on Jews in Germany following the rise of Hitler. Additionally, both Allied law and the Washington Principles, contemporary guidelines used internationally today (which Germany has signed off on), place all onus for proving a proper provenance on the current owner, in this case the museum.
But the history of the Guelph case makes it ripe for loopholes and technicalities. One potential technicality, for instance: The collection was moved to Amsterdam at one point in the 1930s. One profound question, for example: What is a fair price in an economically depressed climate?
While lawyers and experts on both sides are lining up their evidence for the mid-January showdown, sifting through facts and commentary is complex.
What we know
Fact: In 1929, four Jewish art dealers, Zachary Max Hackenbroch, Julius Falk Goldschmidt, Isaac Rosenbaum and nephew Saemy Rosenberg, purchased 82 pieces of the Guelph treasure from the Duke of Brunswick for 7.5 million reichsmarks.
For the heavily financed dealers, this was a coup. Says Gaby Rosenberg, daughter of Saemy, obtaining the Guelph collection “was a great triumph” for her father, “the equivalent of the Academy Award.”
Fact: The businessmen began shopping their wares, even sending them to the United States for an exhibit in Cleveland in their search for lucrative sales. Within a few years they had sold 40 pieces to museums and private collectors for 2.5 million reichsmarks.
However, in the wake of the stock market crash of fall 1929 and the worldwide depression that followed, many potential buyers were no longer in a position to purchase such items. The collection, now several years on the market, was devalued, says the SPK, who claims the only potential buyer by 1934 was the Prussian state.
Fact: Year-long negotiations began on a sale between the four Jewish art dealers, led by Rosenberg who was living in Amsterdam with the treasure, and the Dresdner Bank on behalf of the Prussian state in 1934.
As the Baltimore Sun article shows, the Guelph treasure was purchased and gifted to Hitler by Goering. But here its history becomes more murky.
German lawyer Markus Stoetzel, who is representing the dealers’ heirs with co-council Mel Urbach, suggests the collection eventually found its way to the famous salt mines of Altaussee in Austria, where the Allied Monuments Men found it and eventually turned it over in trust to the German government.
Following WWII, says the SPK, the treasure was in zones occupied by the western Allied Forces or in the Federal Republic of Germany. Since the 1950s, it has been publicly displayed in the Kunstgewerbemuseum (Museum of Decorative Arts) of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (National Museums in Berlin). Part of the collection is currently on display in the Bode Museum on Berlin’s Museum Island while the Museum of Decorative Arts undergoes renovations.
“No restitution request was ever filed by the sellers or their descendants before 2008. In particular, no claims were made within the scope of the Allied and German Federal reparation procedures, nor was an application for financial reparation ever filed,” writes SPK in a detailed press release.
Furthermore, the long detailed negotiations conducted abroad, which led to what the SPK says is a fair price, make the case ineligible for restitution under the Washington Principles, claims the SPK.
In a conversation with The Times of Israel this week, the soft-spoken president of the SPK, archeologist Prof. Hermann Parzinger, says there have been 30 restitution cases at his foundation in the past 10-15 years, and that in more than 95% of them, the claimants have received the property.
“There is agreement that we have a moral responsibility and that things need to be restituted,” he says. “We always try to find a solution because we know very well, unfortunately, what our history was,” says Parzinger.
In the Guelph treasures case, the SPK says the four dealers approached the Prussian government and that together they crafted a very painstaking deal for the sale of “the most important Medieval church treasure in Germany.”
“There was a lot of back and forth over what each side could accept — for example, art work in lieu of money. These were not pressured negotiations,” says Parzinger. There were special provisions for the dealers, he says, including that the moment the contract was signed, the consortium still had a right to rescind the agreement if it was not happy with the art work chosen.
“It’s not as though he [Rosenberg] didn’t have any negotiating power. The tone is very professional, confident,” says Parzinger.
“This has a completely different quality than other cases — in other cases you could see the people were under pressure,” says Parzinger.
“The other side somehow has the idea that any deal between official institutions in Germany after January 30,1933 is not legal. But every case has to be checked. We cannot accept the conclusion that any deal after ’33 was immediately illegal,” says Parzinger.
Shades of gray
Like many Holocaust stories, the tale of the Guelph collection is not a matter of black and white. Here the shades of gray are overshadowed by gold.
In explaining why Rosenberg and the treasures were in Amsterdam, pioneer Holocaust restitution lawyer Mel Urbach says that after the rise of the Nazis, “the prominent collection was a curse” and turned the dealers and their families into moving targets.
‘The prominent collection was a curse’
Rosenberg was the youngest of the four dealers and was called “the junior partner” by Urbach. Unlike his uncle and partners, he was still raising small children in the 1930s, was less entrenched in the family business, and more apt and willing to move.
According to daughter Gaby, her father fled their “leisurely bourgeois” Frankfurt life upon receiving a warning from a former comrade in arms from the World War I Prussian Army.
Saemy’s friend, says Rosenberg, told her father, “You’d better get out of here because the anti-Semitism is rapidly growing,” and subsequently sent a telegram, “Rosenberg, take a vacation,” which spurred the family’s flight the following day.
The older partners, like many German Jews, were still taking a “wait and see” approach — with good cause. When the Nazis rose to power in January 30, 1933, Germany had been through 19 governments in 12 years, writes Prof. Dr. Andreas Nachama, director of the Topography of Terror Foundation, a government-funded museum and research center at the former site of the SS and Gestapo main offices.
In a report detailing the conditions of Jews in the early years of Nazi power, Nachama portrays a systematic breakdown of Jewish freedoms and livelihoods carried out at the formal and informal behest of the new leaders.
It soon became clear to many German Jews, writes Nachama, that the initial attempt of trying to wait out this new upstart Hitler was increasingly ineffective — and dangerous.
Writes Nachama, “Jewish life under the swastika meant one thing from the beginning: defamation, isolation, destruction of existence and finally annihilation.”
An additional historian, Prof. Wolf Gruner, writes in a report that in 1933 the city of Frankfurt am Main, where three of the dealers lived, had the highest Jewish per capita population at 4.71 percent of residents, seven times higher than the national average. It also had among the “most zealous city administrations.”
It was in this climate of both overt — Jews were barred from many trades by 1933 leading to their financial ruin — and “hidden” anti-Semitism — coercive sales in lieu of exit visas — that the consortium made their meticulously planned “deal with the devil.”
Owning the Guelph collection was “like owning a death sentence,” says Urbach. The dealers, he says, “negotiated to keep the Nazis at bay. And there is dignity in pretending it was a genuine situation, when really, all knew it was a coerced sale,” says Urbach.
“Goering never wanted to steal,” says Urbach, adding that even if the Nazis took an object from someone’s house, they gave a receipt that it was being kept in safe custody. “The goal was to give the deal the color of a legal transaction.”
Looking behind the curtain
Two of the three dealers still living in Germany fled following the sale, Goldschmidt and Rosenbaum. The fourth partner, Hackenbroch, died there in 1937, although his children succeed in getting out.
Sitting in a lounge in The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Hackenbroch’s grandson Alan Philipp explains he and the other petitioners didn’t stake a claim for the Guelph treasure until 2008 because they simply didn’t know they had one.
Philipp is the designated spokesperson for the art dealers’ three heirs, Jed Leiber of Los Angeles, Gerald Stiebel of New York and Philipp of the United Kingdom.
Philipp tells a story from his university days, when he was taking a business course in Berlin in 1966. His mother, dealer Hackenbroch’s daughter, came to see him and visited a Berlin museum. Upon her return she said to Phillip, “Everything that was in that room was once in our house.”
He reflects and admits he hadn’t thought to pursue her statement at that time. He has no idea which museum, and to which works she referred. “I don’t think the idea of being able to claim anything came into anyone’s minds.”
Phillip knew his mother had fled Nazi Germany, but that was about it. She didn’t talk and he didn’t press.
As Urbach, a son of a Holocaust survivor, bluntly states, “After the war, people were numb, everyone was dead. Nobody cared about property.”
Only in the late 1990s, says Phillip, did anyone begin speaking of art restitution in his native England, but he says he didn’t know about any potential family claim.
But when one of the US-based heirs was investigating a different art claim, he came upon German lawyer Markus Stoetzel and asked whether he thought there was what to be done in the case of the Guelph treasures.
“We looked behind the curtain and what we found was incredible,” says Stoetzel.
Philipp and the other heirs have discussed potential options for restitution, but he says, “We’re going for broke, for them [SPK] to return everything and for us to have the right to do what we want, but we would take an offer from the museum instead of items.”
A major auction house has estimated the collection was worth between 10-11 million reichsmarks in 1935, essentially 35% of what the dealers received. Interestingly, this estimate corresponds well with the figure publicized in the Baltimore Sun article — $2.5m. The Jewish consortium, however, received only 4.25 m. reichsmarks.
Philipp says they’ve discussed among themselves the ideas of relative compensation, but says, “With possession we have a situation that can be negotiated on.”
Calling for a revolution
Both sides must agree to turn to the Limbach Commission for resolution. To date, aside from the courts system in which claimants sue current owners for restitution, the Limbach Commission is the only recourse for cases that have reached an impasse.
But the basis on which the commission makes its decisions is not clear, say experts, and it has no terms of reference or rules of procedure — the fundamental elements of procedural justice. In the over ten and a half years it has been in existence, only seven cases have been referred to it, and each decision has been barely explained and more unpredictable than the previous one, say experts.
The absence of rules and principles for decision-making on claims, whether at museum or Commission level, creates a 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 — leading restitution lawyers and their clients to speak of a David and Goliath situation in Germany.
As the world scrutinizes the lack of clear procedures followed regarding the Gurlitt trove of suspected Nazi-looted art worth $1.4 billion, found in Munich in 2012 (and made public only in November 2013), this is the time, say experts, for Germany to step up and create a legally binding independent national commission with transparent decisions and policies.
The UK-based Commission for Looted Art in Europe has aided two countries in forming clear policies and claims resolution processes, England and the Netherlands. Co-chair Anne Webber says, “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.
“Since the Guelph claim was first made six years ago, the response of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation has been to reject the claim. But inevitably the current day possessors of such works of art cannot be best placed to decide on the justice of a claim when their own interests are at stake.”
She calls for a national claims process with an independent panel to determine the outcome of a claim, and a clear definition about what constitutes a loss in the Nazi period. The panel should “embody the principles of transparency and accountability, which are essential for the provision of justice,” says Webber.
As the world marks 70 years since World War II, Germany is, in many respects, not allowing Jewish heirs the opportunity for justice, say restitution experts.
“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,” says Webber.