Sunday, December 6, 2020

Supreme Court to Hear Nazi-Era Art Cases

Background at the Times of Israel, "Heirs seek return of ‘cursed’ $200m golden treasure bought for Hitler: The Guelph collection, a trove of medieval Christian art, was sold to Nazi-run Prussia in 1935. Was the sale fair, or did Goering make its Jewish owners an offer they couldn’t refuse?"

And now at the Los Angeles Times, "Supreme Court weighs heirs’ claims over forced Jewish art sales during Nazi era":

WASHINGTON — Two years after Adolf Hitler took power in Germany, the Nazis achieved one of their cultural goals: the return of the Guelph Treasure, a collection of medieval Christian relics.

Under pressure from Hitler’s deputy Hermann Goering, a consortium of Jewish art dealers agreed to sell the collection to the Prussian State Museum. On June 14, 1935, Saemy Rosenberg signed the sale documents in Berlin on behalf of his partners, receiving about one-third of what they had paid for the items in 1929.

On Monday, the Supreme Court will consider whether Rosenberg’s grandson and heirs to two other art dealers can sue Germany and its state museum to recover the treasure or obtain compensation for the loss.

“This was a forced sale to one of the greatest art thieves of all time. And it was literally a present for Hitler,” said Jed Leiber, a musician and record producer in Los Angeles. He was referring to reports that Goering later presented the treasures to Hitler.

Most of the collection, known as Welfenschatz in Germany, is on display in the Bode Museum in Berlin.

Not long after the sale, Rosenberg and his family left Germany for Amsterdam, where his daughter is said to have been a playmate of Anne Frank’s. From there, they moved to London before finally settling in New York City after the war, where Rosenberg reestablished himself as a prominent art dealer.

In an interview, his grandson remembered the “wise, kind and elegant man” who taught him how to play chess. But he did not learn until decades later, long after Rosenberg’s death in 1971, about his grandfather’s role in the sale of the Guelph Treasure.

It is one of two Holocaust-era cases to be heard by the Supreme Court on Monday, and both turn on whether a foreign state — in this instance Germany or Hungary — may be sued in the United States for “rights in property taken in violation of international law.”

Usually, foreign governments and their agencies are shielded from suits under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act of 1976. But there is an exception for an “expropriation” that violates international law, and the federal appeals court in Washington last year refused to dismiss the suits against the Hungarian national railroad and the German state museum because the alleged seizures of property were acts of genocide.

“Nowhere was the Holocaust executed with such speed and ferocity as it was in Hungary,” the appeals court said in Simon vs. Hungary. In the summer of 1944, “Hungary rounded up more than 430,000 Jews for deportation to Nazi death camps,” the court noted. Government officials, including agents of the state railroad, organized four daily trains to shuttle victims to their deaths. Before cramming between 70 and 90 people into each freight car, railroad employees robbed them of all of their possessions.

Rosalie Simon and 12 other survivors of the death camps sued Hungary and its railroad, and the D.C. Circuit appeals court, by a 2-1 vote, rejected Hungary’s claim of immunity.

That decision helped clear the way for the suit against Germany over the Guelph Treasure. Before that, Leiber and his two co-plaintiffs, Alan Philipp and Gerald Stiebel, had filed a claim for recovery in Germany with an advisory commission for the Return of Cultural Property Seized as a Result of Nazi Persecution.

The commission, which included several retired German politicians and judges, decided the 1935 sale was the result of a back-and-forth negotiation and “not a compulsory sale due to persecution.” The reduced value reflected the impact of the Great Depression, the commission said.

The heirs then filed suit in federal court in Washington.

“It is beyond serious debate that Nazi Germany took property in violation of international law by systematically targeting its Jewish citizens to make their property vulnerable for seizure,” they argued.

Again, the D.C. Circuit Court agreed and refused Germany’s claim of immunity...

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