Jan Meisels Allen
On February 3, 2021 the US Supreme Court ruled unanimously that Germany had sovereign immunity in US Courts from claims over the Guelph Collection of gold crosses, jewels and other religious works from the 11th to the 14th centuries. The collection, is called the Welfenschatz in German.
The heirs of the art dealers contended the sale of the works, now said to be worth at least $250 million, was done under pressure. Germany and the state-run foundation that owns the collection, which is on display in Berlin’s Museum of Decorative Arts, argued the case did not belong in American courts. A German commission found the artworks’ sale was made voluntarily and for fair market value. The Supreme Court rejected a suit by the heirs of Nazi-era Jewish art dealers for compensation from Germany for a storied collection of medieval art treasures. The IAJGS Records Access Alert first report on the litigation on December 4, 2020.
The nine justices ruled that Germany was protected by the US Foreign Sovereign Immunity Act (FSIA), which insulates foreign governments from lawsuits in US courts, with only a few exceptions Even in the case of “monstrous” abuse, the justices said in their opinion, “We have previously rejected efforts to insert modern human rights law into FSIA exceptions ill-suited to the task.” The justices said the heirs had not at this point shown that federal law allowed them to bring their case in U.S. courts. The court sent the case back for additional arguments on remaining issues.
The Supreme Court did not comment on the merits of the claim that a group of art dealers was illegally forced to sell the collection at reduced prices in 1935 to Prussia then run by Gestapo founder Hermann Goering as Jews were being threatened.
Germany argued that the dealers were not robbed in the 1935 sale but simply cut their losses after paying too much for the collection on the eve of the global depression of the early 1930s.
Due to the decision on the Guelph treasure the Supreme Court sent a different dispute involving a suit against Hungary back to a lower court for further consideration. That case was filed in 2010 by 14 survivors of the Hungarian Holocaust, including some who survived being sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp. They are seeking to be compensated for property taken from them and their families when they were forced to board trains to concentration camps.
Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the opinion for the unanimous court. To read the opinion go to:
To read more see:
The heirs previously for their bid for compensation lost in Germany and tried in the US Courts.
Jan Meisels Allen
Chairperson, IAJGS Public Records Access Monitoring Committee