An important collection of medieval gold and silver pieces known as the Guelph Treasure (‘Welfenschatz’), is the subject of a claim filed this week in the US District Court in Washington D.C.
The claimants are seeking restitution of the treasure, which is valued at $250-300 million, from Germany and the German Prussian Heritage Foundation who currently own it.
In 1934, the Nazi governor of Prussia, Hermann Göring, purchased the collection from a consortium of Jewish art dealers, before reportedly presenting it to Hitler as a surprise gift.
The claimants, who are the descendants of the art dealers, are seeking restitution of the treasure on the basis that the pieces were sold for considerably less than they were worth, and that the sale was a ‘sham transaction’ forced upon their predecessors. The Prussian Heritage Foundation maintains that the sale was a ‘free disposal’.
Germany’s Limback Commission, which is the government-appointed advisory committee on the restitution of cultural goods confiscated by the Nazis, has previously considered the restitution claim. After examining evidence from both sides, it decided in March 2014 that the treasure should not be returned as there had been no forced sale: the purchase price was not unreasonably low, the sellers were paid, and they were free to do what they wanted with the money. However this decision was not binding.
The claimants have now turned to the US Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, alleging that the property was taken in violation of international law. They are are also relying on the Washington Principles, which set standards for the restitution of Nazi-looted art.