The ruling comes three years after a German commission ruled that the owners of the collection – known as the Welfenschatz, or Guelph Treasure – were not forced to sell it by the Nazis. the Washington DC District Court ruled that claims regarding the collection – which Dresdner Bank purchased on behalf of Hitler’s deputy, Hermann Göring, in 1935 – can be filed in a US court.
Lawyers for the complainants hailed the ruling. It is the first time that an American court has held that Germany can be sued for the return of Nazi-looted art and artifacts under the US Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act.
For several years, heirs to the consortium of Jewish collectors that bought the 82-piece collection in 1929 as an investment have been demanding the return of the portion sold to Göring, estimating its value today at approximately US$ 227 million. The treasure is on display at Berlin’s Bode Museum and currently held by the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation.
Attorneys filed the suit in the US in February 2015, one year after the Limbach Commission, the German advisory board for Holocaust-related claims, rejected the plaintiffs’ contention that the 1935 sale had been forced.
In its ruling last week, the court rejected the German defendants’ contention that the Limbach Commission recommendation bars later litigation in a US court. It also agreed with the plaintiffs that the sale may be considered a taking of property in violation of international law.
Reacting to the ruling, Hermann Parzinger, head of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, said in a statement that he did not believe the case belongs in a US court. He said the foundation would “look at the decision carefully and consider further steps.” Parzinger also emphasized that the foundation does not believe evidence shows that the sale was forced.