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US Supreme Court hears disputed Nazi art case

Descendants of Jewish art dealers are seeking Christian art in Germany valued at £190 million in a case that could affect restitution battles around the world.

Portable Altar of Countess Gertrude, shortly after 1038, from the Guelph Treasure, German, Lower Saxony, gold, enamel, porphyry, gems, pearls, niello (Cleveland Museum of Art)
Portable Altar of Countess Gertrude, shortly after 1038, from the Guelph Treasure, German, Lower Saxony, gold, enamel, porphyry, gems, pearls, niello (Cleveland Museum of Art)

The US Supreme Court has begun hearing from descendants of Jewish art dealers seeking Christian art in Germany valued at £190 million in a case that could affect restitution battles around the world.

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 in 1929.

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 lost value reflected an art market still reeling from the Wall Street crash a few years earlier.

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“The key question we ask is whether a work in our collection was withdrawn from its previous owner as a result of persecution,” he said.

“The work’s artistic value, and its importance to our collection, is irrelevant in this process. There are very few works subject to a restitution claim whose paperwork makes it as clear that it wasn’t seized as a result of persecution as the Guelph Treasure. Neither was the sale forced, nor was the sale price unfair.”

For years, the United States has relied on countries to use their own legal systems to ensure restitution, but analysts say this ruling could change that by letting foreigners use US courts to sue their own nations.

 

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