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US Court Denies Germany’s Motion to Dismiss Lawsuit Brought by Heirs of Jewish Art Dealers Persecuted by Nazis

Colleen Kollar-Kotelly, a federal judge in Washington, DC, denied Germany’s motion to dismiss a lawsuit filed to recover the Guelph Treasure, a trove of devotional and medieval art objects once owned by the House of Guelph—a centuries-old European dynasty—sold by a group of German-Jewish art dealers in 1935 for just over a third of its market value to the state of Prussia. The case is one of the first to be influenced by the Holocaust Expropriated Art Recovery (HEAR) Act. The HEAR Act makes it less difficult for the heirs of those persecuted by the Nazis to file restitution claims in the US, writes Laura Gilbert of the Art Newspaper.

Heirs Jed Leiber, Gerald Stiebel, and Alan Philipp say their relatives were forced by the Nazis into selling the treasure for almost nothing (and the dealers were made to look like villains because of their Jewishness and because the objects were considered German state treasures). The plaintiffs say the transaction was overseen by Adolf Hitler and Hermann Goering, as they wanted the Guelph pieces for the Reich. Leiber, Stiebel, and Philipp cite a letter from Frankfurt’s mayor asking Hitler to “create the legal and financial preconditions for [the treasure’s] return.” After the sale was taken care of, Goering presented the Guelph trove as a “surprise gift” to Hitler.

The Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation and Germany are in charge of the Museum of Decorative Arts in Berlin, where the Guelph Treasure is currently on view. They state that the sale was a valid “arm’s length negotiation.” According to Germany and the foundation, the works’ low price was due to the floundering German art market and the Great Depression. Judge Kollar-Kotelly turned down the defendants’ argument for dismissing the suit, citing the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, which halts lawsuits against other countries but makes exceptions where the government breaks international laws. The looting of Jewish property by the Nazis “constitute[s] genocide and genocide . . . is a clear violation of international law,” said the judge. In the original motion to dismiss, Germany and the foundation argued that the statute of limitations had passed for a claim on the treasure. The HEAR Act, however, changed such limitations and the defendants retain the right to raise the issue in future cases.

Nicholas O’Donnell, the lawyer for the heirs, says the judge’s decision is significant, because the court ruled that Germany’s appropriation of art from its own citizens before 1939, when the Nazis breached borders and attacked other nations, is a violation of international law. The years between 1933—when the Third Reich obtained power—and 1939 is “a period with a large category of [such] crimes,” said O’Donnell. He feels the judge’s decision “will be used for other claims.”