US supreme court denies compensation claim over Nazi art

The medallion with the bust of Christ (late 700s A.D.) is the oldest object from the Guelph treasure. Image: Daderot (Wikimedia) CC0

Last week, the US supreme court ruled Germany does not have to pay compensation to the heirs of Jewish art dealers from the Nazi-era. The heirs claimed their ancestors were forced to sell the so-called Guelph treasure to the German state in 1935.

The plaintiffs demanded that Germany would compensate them for the loss of the collection of religious objects. The Guardian reported that the art dealers bought the 82 religious objects in 1929 for 7.5m reichsmark, but sold 42 of them for only 4.25m reichsmark to the German state six years later. The remaining pieces were sold to various dealers and museums in the US. Nowadays, the treasure is valued at $250m.

The heirs argue that the dealers were forced to sell the treasure, due to the Nazi’s prosecuting Jews and stripping them of their possessions. The German defence stated the deal was not forced but negotiated reasonably. The dealers tried to cut their losses after the art market collapsed following the economic depression.

International Laws

In 2014 a German expert commission on cultural property seized by Nazi’s rejected the plaintiff’s claim of returning the collection. The case ended up in a US court because the heirs claim the sale was part of the Shoah and would violate international law. Therefore the deal would apply to a clause in the US’s Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act.

Nonetheless, the US supreme court rejected the heirs’ appeal and ruled in favour of the defendant, Germany. The nine justices noted that US law governs the US “but does not rule the world.” The case will now be continued in the District Court, a lower court.

Nicholas O’Donnell, the heirs’ lawyer, said his clients were disappointed with the verdict, according to The Art Newspaper. “We are considering our next steps for when the case returns to the District Court.”

PBS NewsHour interviewed the heirs of the art dealers to find out more about their arguments. You can watch the report in the video below.

Source: The Guardian (6-12-2020), The Guardian (3-2-2021), LootedArt, The Art Newspaper and Wikipedia

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