U.S. court dismisses Nazi-era Guelph Treasure case

A United States court has just dismissed a lawsuit that was filed by heirs of Nazi-era Jewish art dealers against a German museum foundation, The Guardian reports

This lawsuit has to do with a collection of 11th to 15th-century religious artworks, known as the Welfenschatz, or Guelph Treasure, that Jewish art dealers sold to Germany in 1935. The artworks have been on display in Berlin since the early 1960s and are currently in the Bode Museum.

The lawsuit

The heirs of these Jewish art dealers maintain that their ancestors were forced to sell the Welfenschatz to the Nazi government for less than the artworks’ value. Accordingly, the heirs have been trying to get full compensation – roughly $250 million – or the return of the artworks. Germany, on the other hand, claims that the sale, after being recently investigated, was found to be a “voluntary, fair-market transaction.”

The unusual thing about this whole situation, though, is that the heirs have brought the lawsuit against Germany and the museum overseer – the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation – in United States courts, arguing that Germany’s actions amounted to a violation of international law.

Initially, lower U.S. courts allowed the lawsuit, which was originally filed in 2015, to move forward. But, eventually, the case made it to the U.S. Supreme Court. And, in 2021, the justices ruled, 9 to 0, that the case could not proceed because it violates the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act.

Chief Justice John Roberts, at the time, wrote:

As a nation, we would be surprised – and might even initiate reciprocal action – if a court in Germany adjudicated claims by Americans that they were entitled to hundreds of millions of dollars because of human rights violations committed by the United States government years ago. There is no reason to anticipate that Germany’s reaction would be any different were American courts to exercise the jurisdiction claimed in this case.

The justices, then, sent the case back down to the lower courts to reconsider their rulings in light of this Supreme Court decision.

The latest

The U.S. district court for the District of Columbia has reconsidered the matter and has now issued its latest ruling.

The court has dismissed the case.

Hermann Parzinger, the president of the Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz (SPK), put out a statement in response to the ruling.

He said:

SPK is pleased with the district court’s ruling, which affirms SPK’s long-held assessment that this lawsuit seeking the restitution of the Guelph Treasure should not be heard in a US court. SPK has also long maintained that this lawsuit lacked merit, as the Guelph Treasure’s sale in 1935 was not a forced sale due to Nazi persecution.

Whether or not, though, this is the end of the matter remains to be seen. It appears that it is still possible for the heirs to appeal the district court decision.