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Germany sued for medieval art sale to Nazis

Heirs of four Jewish art collectors hope to regain Guelph Treasure trove, estimated at $227 million

Portable Altar of Countess Gertrude from shortly after 1038, from the Guelph Treasure. (photo credit CC BY Wikipedia)
Portable Altar of Countess Gertrude from shortly after 1038, from the Guelph Treasure. (photo credit CC BY Wikipedia)

BERLIN — Heirs of four Jewish art collectors filed suit against Germany to regain a medieval art collection they claim was forcibly sold to the Nazis in 1935.

Alan Phillip and Gerald Stiebel filed their claim on Monday against Germany and the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation in US District Court for the District of Columbia. They are demanding the return of a collection known as the Welfenschatz, or “Guelph Treasure,” whose value they estimate at approximately $227 million.

The treasure, which a consortium of collectors bought in 1929 as an investment, originally included 82 pieces.

The plaintiffs are seeking the return of the portion sold to Hermann Goering, Hitler’s deputy, in 1935.

Büstenreliquiar St. Blasius from the Guelph Treasure, Braunschweig, 2nd (?) Quarter of the 14th Century, silver plate, gold-plated, filigree, crystal stones, pearls, enamel on silver mine; oak wood core, height 51.5 cm, width 30.8 cm, depth 19 cm, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (photo credit: courtesy SPK)
Büstenreliquiar St. Blasius from the Guelph Treasure, Braunschweig, 2nd (?) Quarter of the 14th Century, silver plate, gold-plated, filigree, crystal stones, pearls, enamel on silver mine; oak wood core, height 51.5 cm, width 30.8 cm, depth 19 cm, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (photo credit: courtesy SPK)

In a statement issued Tuesday in Berlin, Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation President Hermann Parzinger said he was “astonished by this step,” after his foundation had done extensive research that he believed showed “the property at issue was not confiscated by the Nazis. Nor was it part of a forced sale or transfer under duress or coercion by the Nazis.”

Furthermore, he said that the attorneys for the plaintiffs had said they would abide by the advice of the Limbach Commission.

“We are confident that any court ruling on the merits would reach the same conclusion that we and the Advisory Commission have reached,” he said.

Plenary of Duke Otto the Mild from the Guelph Treasure (front cover); cover Braunschweig 1339; handwriting Lower Saxony, in 1330 (?); Silver, gold plated, jasper, rock crystal, parchment paintings, stone and Perlbesatz; oak wood core; manuscript parchment, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Museum of Decorative Arts (photo credit: SPK)
Plenary of Duke Otto the Mild from the Guelph Treasure (front cover); cover Braunschweig 1339; handwriting Lower Saxony, in 1330 (?); Silver, gold plated, jasper, rock crystal, parchment paintings, stone and Perlbesatz; oak wood core; manuscript parchment, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Museum of Decorative Arts (photo credit: SPK)

On Saturday, Parzinger announced that the state of Berlin had formally entered the Welfenschatz into the national registry of valuable cultural assets, which prevents it from leaving the country without permission from the Minister of State for Culture.

The lawsuit comes one year after a German advisory board for Holocaust-related claims, the Limbach Commission, rejected a claim by Phillip and Stiebel that the 1935 sale had been forced. The commission recommended that the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation retain the treasure, which is on display at Berlin’s Bode Museum.

The medieval Dome Reliquary (13th century) of the Guelph Treasure is displayed at the Bode Museum in Berlin, January 9, 2014 (photo credit: AP/Markus Schreiber)
The medieval Dome Reliquary (13th century) of the Guelph Treasure is displayed at the Bode Museum in Berlin, January 9, 2014 (photo credit: AP/Markus Schreiber)

“Germany feels itself to be and is regarded as a moral compass in the field of looted art,” Markus Stoetzel, another attorney for the plaintiffs, said on Monday. “But it is not.”

In their suit, the plaintiffs called the 1935 sale a “sham transaction” carried out by the Dresdner Bank acting for Goering and Hitler. They claim the price paid for the collection, 4.25 million Reichsmarks, was at best 35 percent of its value at the time, and perhaps as low as 15% percent.

From left, Zacharias Max Hackenbroch, Julius Falk Goldschmidt and Saemy Rosenberg, three of the Jewish collectors who purchased the Welfenschatz treasure in 1929. (photo credit: JTA)
From left, Zacharias Max Hackenbroch, Julius Falk Goldschmidt and Saemy Rosenberg, three of the Jewish collectors who purchased the Welfenschatz treasure in 1929. (photo credit: JTA)

“The transaction relied on the atmosphere of early Nazi terror, in which German Jews could never be arms’-length commercial actors,” the suit claims.

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