Berlin Museums appeal to U.S. Supreme Court in legal battle over Nazi-looted $276 million treasure.

Wallace Ludel
Jun 25, 2019 4:59PM, via The Art Newspaper

Photo by TOBIAS SCHWARZ/AFP/Getty Images.

A legal battle that began in 2008 regarding the provenance of Germany’s famed Guelph Treasure may soon wind up in the United States Supreme Court after the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit rejected an appeal last week. The trove was sold by Jewish art dealers to the Prussian government in 1935, which was run at the time by Hermann Göring. The sellers’ heirs are arguing that the sale—like many others from that time in history—was made under duress. The descendants of the art dealers allege that Hermann Göring, who later became a leader of the Nazi party, was involved in the purchase and that he eventually gifted the treasures to Adolf Hitler. Forty-two items from the sale remain at the Berlin Kunstgewerbemuseum (Applied Arts Museum). In total, the collection has been valued as high as $276 million.

The treasures resided in the cathedral in Brunswick until 1671, when the suite was acquired by the House of Guelph—a royal dynasty whose descendants include such figures as Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II. The family’s reign over the area ended during World War I, and its members sold the 82-item collection to a consortium of Jewish art dealers in 1929. These dealers in turn sold forty of those pieces to museums and private collectors before selling the contested 42 items, at a loss, to the state in 1935.

Six years after the legal fight commenced, the German Advisory Commission on Nazi-looted art ruled in 2014 that “the sale of the Guelph Treasure can not be considered a forced sale.” This remains the government’s position.

In a statement given to The Art Newspaper in response to the latest developments, the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation—the body that runs Berlin’s State museums and is known in the country as the Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz (SPK)—said:

The SPK is convinced that this was not a sale under duress due to Nazi persecution [. . .] It views these claims as unfounded. Regardless of this, the SPK is of the opinion that this case—concerning a historic transaction between Germans in Germany— shouldn’t be heard in a US court.

The plaintiff’s lawyer Nicholas O’Donnell fought back with strong words of his own, also telling The Art Newspaper,

The SPK’s desperation to avoid scrutiny of a ‘sale’ in 1935 by Jews to Hermann Goering speaks for itself [. . .] The SPK’s latest press release is just another instance of Germany pretending to care about the issue of Nazi-looted art while doing everything it can to stand in victims’ and heirs’ way and run down the clock until another generation passes away.

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that the treasure was sold to the Nazi government and Hermann Göring in 1935; it was sold to the Prussian government. A previous version of this article also stated that Göring gifted the treasure to Hitler, but this allegation has not been corroborated as of the date of this story’s publication. The article has been updated.

Wallace Ludel