A U.S. Court dismissed a 2015 restitution lawsuit over the Guelph Treasure, a trove of medieval devotional objects that the heirs of Nazi-era Jewish art dealers claimed had been sold under duress.
The lawsuit had been filed against the Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz (SPK), which manages state-run museums in and around Berlin. The court dismissed the case because it said it could not be decided in the U.S.
The Guelph Treasure, also known in German as the Welfenschatz, includes 82 objects, among them ornate silver, relics, altarpieces, and gold and silver crucifixes. It is the largest publicly owned collection of its kind in Germany, valued at up to $250 million.
“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 U.S. court,” SPK president Herrmann Parzinger told the Associated Press on Tuesday. “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.”
The heirs maintained that their ancestors were coerced into selling the artifacts below their value to the Nazi government in 1935. The state-run foundation, however, claimed that the sale was not forced and that the collection was not in Germany when it was sold.
“My clients are disappointed in the District Court’s ruling,” Nicolas O’Donnell, the heirs’ attorney, told Artnet News. “Most disappointing, of course, is that Germany continues to defy its commitments under the Washington Principles of 1998 and its own Joint Declaration to seek just and fair solutions for art misappropriated by Germany during the Holocaust. We are reviewing the decision and options to appeal.”
Originally, before the suit was presented in the U.S., this legal battle over the treasure began in Germany in 2008. The heirs of Jewish collectors Zacharias Hackenbroch, Isaac Rosenbaum, Saemy Rosenberg, and Julius Falk Goldschmidt claimed that the 1935 sale had been forced, as the artifacts had been sold for less than market value at the time and 10 percent less than had been paid by the collectors in 1929.
In 2014, a German commission found that the Great Depression accounted for the price difference and ruled that the sale was made voluntarily for fair market value. When a suit was filed in U.S. court in 2015, Germany and the SPK foundation argued that the case did not belong there.
This ruling follows an earlier decision made by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2021 that overturned a lower court’s denial of the Berlin foundation’s attempt to dismiss the suit.