The US Supreme Court began a hearing yesterday involving the descendants of Jewish art dealers who are seeking the return of items claimed to have been forcibly sold to the German state during the Nazi era.
If the Supreme Court rules that the items should be returned to the art dealers’ descendants, the case could open the floodgates for claimants from all over the globe to bring similar restitution cases to the US.
The claim centres on artefacts that are part of the Guelph Treasure, a collection of rare Christian relics which include small altars and ornate crosses, many of which are silver or gold and decorated with gems and pearls. The collection is deemed to be one of the most important medieval artefacts in existence.
The Guelph Treasure was acquired by a consortium of Jewish art dealers in 1929. Forty-two of the 82 pieces were bought by the German state in 1935 for 4.25 million Reichsmarks. They are now held in Berlin’s Museum of Decorative Arts.
Jed Leiber, a descendent of one of the Guelph Treasure’s owners, claims that this portion was sold under state pressure and below market value.
Germany and the Prussia Cultural Heritage Foundation, the body that oversees museums and cultural organisations in Berlin, deny the claims. They argue that they looked into the claim over five years ago, and there was no evidence of pressure to sell or that the items were bought at reduced price.
The remaining 40 objects were sold outside of Germany. Collectively, the objects are now valued to be at least $250m (£190m).
The case, which is being heard by telephone due to the pandemic, is focused on whether US courts have jurisdiction to adjudicate on this matter and, if ultimately proved, to order the Guelph Treasure be returned to the art dealers’ descendants.
US law usually restricts civil suits against a foreign government except when property is taken “in violation of international law”, in accordance with the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act 1976.
A ruling is expected by June 2021.