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US Supreme Court sides with Germany in $250m Nazi-era treasure dispute

Heirs of Jewish art dealers claimed relatives were forced to sell Guelph Treasure collection of medieval Christian artwork at a loss in the 1930s; US judges decline to intervene

In this Jan. 9, 2014, file photo, the medieval Dome Reliquary (13th century) of the Welfenschatz, or Guelph Treasure, is displayed at the Bode Museum in Berlin. (AP/Markus Schreiber)
In this Jan. 9, 2014, file photo, the medieval Dome Reliquary (13th century) of the Welfenschatz, or Guelph Treasure, is displayed at the Bode Museum in Berlin. (AP/Markus Schreiber)

The US Supreme Court’s ruling Wednesday in a multimillion-dollar dispute over a collection of religious artworks will make it harder for some lawsuits to be tried in US courts over claims that property was taken from Jews during the Nazi era.

The justices sided with Germany in a dispute involving the heirs of Jewish art dealers and the 1935 sale of a collection of medieval Christian artwork called the Guelph Treasure. The collection, called the Welfenschatz in German, is said to now be worth at least $250 million.

The court ruled unanimously that Germany had sovereign immunity in US courts from claims over the Guelph collection of gold crosses, jewels and other religious works from the 11th to the 14th centuries.

But they avoided comment on the merits of the claim that a group of art dealers was illegally forced to sell the collection at cut-rate prices in 1935 to Prussia, then run by Gestapo founder Hermann Goering, as the Nazis increasingly threatened Jews.

In this Jan. 9, 2014, a medieval Cross, part of the Welfenschatz, or Guelph Treasure, is displayed at the Bode Museum in Berlin.(AP/Markus Schreiber)

“It was simply not possible in 1935 for any Jewish business, least of all dealers who are in possession of the German national treasure, to get a fair deal with perhaps the greatest, most notorious art thief of all time,” Jed Leiber, whose grandfather Saemy Rosenberg was one of the dealers, told AFP in December.

The heirs originally pressed their claims in Germany, but a German commission found the artworks’ sale was made voluntarily and for fair market value. A suit was then filed in the United States. Germany and the state-run foundation that owns the collection, which is on display in Berlin’s Museum of Decorative Arts, argued the case did not belong in American courts.

However strong the original claim may have been, the nine justices ruled that Germany was protected by the US Foreign Sovereign Immunity Act (FSIA), which insulates foreign governments from lawsuits in US courts, with only a few exceptions.

Even in the case of “monstrous” abuse, the justices said in their opinion, “We have previously rejected efforts to insert modern human rights law into FSIA exceptions ill-suited to the task.”

“The heirs have not shown that the FSIA allows them to bring their claims against Germany. We cannot permit them to bypass its design,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in an opinion for a unanimous court.

US law, they noted, governs the United States “but does not rule the world,” and the Guelph case essentially involved a transaction by Germans in Germany.

They also noted that Germany has a functioning system for redress of Nazi-era claims that already provided around $100 billion in compensation to Holocaust survivors.

In this May 3, 2020 photo, the setting sun shines on the US Supreme Court building in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Roberts wrote that Americans would be “surprised… if a court in Germany adjudicated claims by Americans that they were entitled to hundreds of millions of dollars because of human rights violations committed by the United States Government years ago.” He said Germans’ reaction to this case might be expected to be the same.

In a statement, Hermann Parzinger, the president of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation that owns the collection, welcomed the decision. He said it was the foundation’s “long-held belief that this case should not be heard in US court.”

Nick O’Donnell, who represented the heirs of the art dealers, said in a statement that his clients were “obviously disappointed.” The case now goes back to a lower court for additional arguments on remaining issues, and O’Donnell said the heirs are considering their next steps.

Because of the decision in the Guelph Treasure case, the justices also sent a different dispute involving a suit against Hungary back to a lower court for further consideration. That case was filed in 2010 by 14 survivors of the Hungarian Holocaust, including some who survived being sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp. They are seeking to be compensated for property taken from them and their families when they were forced to board trains to concentration camps.

Both cases were argued in December. At the time, the Trump administration urged the justices to side with Germany and Hungary.

The cases are Hungary v. Simon, 18-1447, and Germany v. Philipp, 19-351.

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