Jan Meisels Allen
Heirs of several Nazi-era Jewish art dealers have tried to regain possession of art treasure, specifically the Guelph Treasure, a collection of Christian relics. During the Nazi-era under pressure by Herman Goering a consortium of Jewish art dealers agreed to sell the collection to the Prussian State Museum. On June 14, 1935, Saemy Rosenberg signed the sale documents in Berlin on behalf of his partners, receiving about one-third of what they had paid for the items in 1929. Most of the collection known as Welfenschatz in Germany is on display at the Bode Museum in Berlin.
The U.S. Supreme Court will hear the case on December 7 regarding whether Rosenberg’s grandson and other art dealers’ heirs can sue Germany and its state museum to recover the treasure or obtain compensation for the loss. This is one of two Holocaust-era cases to be heard by the Supreme Court on December 7th. The other case involves Hungary and the issue before the Court is whether a foreign state may be sued in the United States for “rights in property taken in violation of international law.”
Under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act of 1976 foreign governments and their agencies are shielded from litigation –however, there is an exception for an “expropriation” that violates international law, and the federal appeals court in Washington last year refused to dismiss the suits against the Hungarian national railroad and the German state museum because the alleged seizures of property were acts of genocide.
Hungary rounded up and deported over 430,000 Jews for deportation to the death camps with the state railroad taking the victims four trains daily to the death camps. Rosalie Simon and 12 other survivors of the death camps sued Hungary and its railroad in the DC Circuit Appeals Court by a 2-1 vote rejected Hungary’s claim of immunity. This cleared the way for the suit against Germany and the Guelph Treasure.
Two co-plaintiffs had filed a claim for recovery in Germany with an advisory commission or the Return of Cultural Property Seized as a Result of Nazi Persecution. The Commission which included several retired German politicians and judges decided the 1935 sale was the result of a back-and-forth negotiation and “not a compulsory sale due to persecution” saying the reduced value of the art was due to the Great Depression.
The suit was then heard in federal court in Washington DC where the DC Circuit Court agreed and refused Germany’s claim of immunity. However the dissent by Judge Gregory Katsas, a Trump appointee, warned against opening the US Courts to resolve historic foreign disputes.
When Germany and Hungary filed appeal petitions before the Supreme Court, the Trump Administration advised the justices to hear the cases and is now urging the court to throw out the suits from both sets of plaintiffs. It is customary for government lawyers to argue in favor of sovereign immunity because the principle also protects the U.S. government from being sued in foreign courts. The administration lawyers argue that Holocaust-era seizures of Jewish property were “domestic takings” that were off limits to US law. This Administration position is contrary to the position of the US since World War ll.
This brings to mind the case before the Supreme Court of Maria Altmann who sued to recover Gustav Klimt’s painting Adele Bloch-Bauer, “The Lady in Gold” which was litigated by E. Randol Schoenberg head of JewishGen’s Austria-Czech SIG ad Board of Directors. Randy won the case when the US Supreme court refused to dismiss the case based on Austria’s claim of severing immunity and permitted her case to go forth, but Austria’s government arbitrated instead agreed to return the painting.
The two cases to be heard are: Republic of Hungary vs. Simon and Federal Republic of Germany vs. Philipp.
Jan Meisels Allen
Chairperson, IAJGS Public Records Access Monitoring Committee