Heirs of Jewish Art Dealers Move Forward With Yearslong Restitution Battle

For over a decade, they’ve argued that their ancestors were forced to sell valuable artifacts. Now, they’re back in court with a new legal strategy

Altar from treasure trove
Portable altar of Countess Gertrude, shortly after 1038 Daderot via Wikimedia Commons under Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication

In the late 1920s, a group of Jewish art dealers purchased a collection of medieval artifacts, selling roughly half in the years that followed. But then, in 1935, records show that they sold the remaining half to the Prussian state—and for far less than they initially paid. 

Today, their heirs argue that the sale was made at the direction of Hermann Göring, a powerful Nazi leader (and founder of the Gestapo) who ran the Prussian state at the time. The restitution battle has been unfolding for over a decade. And now, the heirs are back in court with a new legal strategy.

Valued at around $250 million, the collection consists of religious relics that belonged to German nobility between the 11th and 15th centuries. The trove currently resides in Berlin’s Museum of Decorative Arts, which is operated by the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation (SPK).

One of the plaintiffs is an American named Jed Leiber, whose grandfather Saemy Rosenberg was among the Jewish art dealers. He maintains that though the art wasn’t technically stolen, SPK has a duty to make the situation right.

Reliquary with fingerbone of Saint John the Baptist, circa 1400 Public domain

“This case has everything to do with restitution [and] remedying a forced sale, which has major financial implications,” he told Agence France-Presse in 2020. “But at the heart of it is something that’s far more important, which is justice.” 

The legal battle began in 2008, when the heirs filed a restitution claim in Germany, according to Artnet’s Sarah Cascone. But in 2014, per the New York Times’ Melissa Eddy, a German panel ruled that the sale had not been forced—and that the low price could be attributed to the Great Depression. 

Following that setback, the heirs brought their case to the United States in 2015. Since then, as the Courthouse News Service’ Joe Dodson reports, the courts have gone back and forth on the issue

The central question in the suit concerns the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, legislation that protects other countries from U.S. lawsuits. The act, however, contains an exception for cases involving violations of international law. The plaintiffs initially argued that the sale fell under the human rights violations of the Holocaust—and that, as a result, the U.S. could rule on their case.

Medallion with the bust of Christ, late 700s Daderot via Wikimedia Commons under Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication

In 2017, the D.C. District Court ruled that the case could move forward. But in 2021, the Supreme Court dismissed it, finding that “a sovereign’s taking of its own nationals’ property is not unlawful under the international law of expropriation.” Last year, the D.C. District Court also ruled in favor of SPK.

Now, the heirs have a new argument, which they brought before the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals earlier this month: that their ancestors were no longer considered German nationals at the time of the sale. Two of the dealers became Dutch nationals, while the others were stateless. 

“If you were to ask what the view of the expropriating state was in 1935 as to whether these three men were German nationals, the question answers itself,” Nicholas O'Donnell, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said at the hearing, per the Courthouse News Service. “Germany could not be more emphatic that this group of people were constitutionally ineligible.”  

Lawyers for SPK argue that the plaintiffs had their chance to make that case during earlier stages of the suit but failed to do so, reports the Art Newspaper’s Benjamin Sutton. 

The panel of judges has not yet indicated when it will issue a ruling.

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