The heirs of Jewish art dealers who sold medieval Christian art worth £190 million in Germany in the 1930s have lost their US Supreme Court quest for its return.
The plaintiffs are descended from two of the four Jewish dealers who sold the so-called Guelph Treasure in 1935 for about 60 percent of what they paid for it six years earlier.
Lawyers say Nazi persecution coerced them.
A total of 42 objects, mainly church reliquaries, are included in the collection that has been displayed in Berlin’s Museum of Decorative Arts since 1963. Among the items are a cross encrusted with crystals and bones supposedly of saints.
The Jewish dealers’ descendants say their ancestors were forced to sell for less than the artworks were worth, but the museum’s foundation says the art lost value after the Wall Street crash a few years earlier, causing prices to tumble.
The foundation has returned more than 350 works by artists including Edvard Munch, Vincent van Gogh and Caspar David Friedrich since 1998, but its president Hermann Parzinger said the circumstances that would typically prompt a return of artwork were not present here.
The Supreme Court justices this week reinforced the traditional US reliance on countries to use their own legal systems to ensure restitution, as US law “does not govern the world”. They further noted that Germany had already spent around £70 billion on restitution since 1945.
Their argument was not accepted by the dealers’ heirs, however. “It was simply not possible in 1935 for any Jewish business, least of all dealers in possession of the German national treasure, to get a fair deal,” said Jed Leiber, whose grandfather Saemy Rosenberg was one of the dealers.
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