Jan Meisels Allen
On July 2 the US Supreme Court agreed to hear a case during the 2020-2021 session regarding descendants of a group of Jewish art dealers from Germany who say their ancestors were forced to sell a collection of religious art to the Nazi Government in 1935. The justices will decide whether the dispute involving foreign citizens suing a foreign government belongs in US courts. A lower court allowed the case to go forward, but Germany asked the US Supreme Court to weigh in.
The justices also took a case involving Hungarian nationals suing Hungary over property taken from them during World War II.
The German case stems from 1935, when Nazi leader Hermann Göring allegedly forced a consortium of Jewish art dealers in Frankfurt to sell a trove of Prussian religious artifacts for a fraction of its value. Most of the art dealers fled Germany; one who remained soon died. In November 1935, Göring presented the collection, known as the Welfenschatz or Guelph Treasure, to Hitler as a gift. Heirs of the art dealers, including several U.S. citizens, sued to recover the property, currently held by a museum in Berlin.
According to a story in the Wall Street Journal,” The heirs applied for restitution in Germany, but a panel set up to review such claims said it found no evidence the sale was forced. “The lack of demand and the lower purchase price in comparison with earlier estimates can be attributed to the world economic crisis and not to the repression of Jewish art dealers by the National Socialist government,” the panel said. The heirs then filed suit in federal court. “The Nazis viewed the Welfenschatz as an Aryan treasure, and they were disgusted that it was held by Jews,” the plaintiffs’ brief says.
Generally, foreign governments can’t be sued in US courts but Congress has made several exceptions including for state sponsors of terrorism and acts of expropriation that violate international law. Germany argues that international law doesn’t prohibit foreign governments from expropriating property of their own nationals. Since the Jewish victims lived in Germany—although Jews were stripped of German citizenship by the 1935 Nuremberg laws—it argues that it cannot be sued in the U.S.
In the Hungarian suit, 14 Hungarian Jews who survived the Holocaust, including four who now are American citizens, sued Hungary and its state-owned railway, MAV, to recover property confiscated from Jews who were shipped to death camps. US Judge Patricia Millett said, “In 1944 alone, a concentrated campaign by the Hungarian government marched nearly half a million Jews into Hungarian railroad stations, stripped them of all their personal property and possessions, forced them onto trains, and transported them to death camps like Auschwitz, where 90% of them were murdered upon arrival,.”
The Wall Street Journal is a subscription newspaper. Other news media have also reported on the case but not with the same detail. If you are not able to access the Wall Street Journal try:
The 1887 painting “La Cueillette des Pois” (“Picking Peas”) by Camille Pissarro. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
In the French case a French appeals court ruled a painting looted during the Holocaust belongs to a Jewish collector and should be returned to the family of the collector, Simon Bauer. The 1887 painting called La Cueillette des Pois (“Picking Peas”) by Camille Pissarro that was looted from a Jewish collector during World War II and the Holocaust.
During World War ll the Vichy Regime collaborated with the Nazis and stole 93 paintings from Bauer. Some paintings but not all were returned to Bauer not including La Cueillette des Pois.
The two Americans who purchased the painting claimed they did not know the painting was stolen when they bought it in New York for $800,000 in 1995. The Tolls, who purchased the painting, is the chairman of the holding company which own the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Philadelphia Daily News newspapers.
Jan Meisels Allen
Chairperson, IAJGS Public Records Access Monitoring Committee