Guelph Treasure lawsuit to proceed in US court

Following a historic court ruling, Germany will have to defend itself for the first time in the United States against a claim for the restitution of an important collection of medieval art and artifacts known as the Guelph Treasure.

In a judgment handed down on March 31, the US District Court for the District of Columbia held that Germany cannot claim immunity from suit over the return of the Nazi-looted treasure under the US Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act. The Act prohibits lawsuits from being filed against other countries except where the government takes property in violation of international law. US District Court Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly held that Nazi looting of Jewish property “constitute[s] genocide and genocide… is a clear violation of international law”. 

Known in Germany as the ‘Welfenschatz’, the Guelph Treasure includes several pieces of 11th-15th century jewelled and gilded reliquary art valued at US$250-300 million (£200-240 million). Originally owned by Prussian aristocrats, it was sold off in 1929 with part of the collection going to a consortium of Jewish art dealers.

The restitution claim alleges that the consortium was forced to sell the artifacts for barely 35% of their value to the emissaries of top Nazi deputy Hermann Göring in 1935. It was filed by descendants of the art dealers against the Federal Republic of Germany and the state-run Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation (the Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz, or SPK). The defendants maintain that the sale of the treasure was legitimate and done at the owners’ “free disposal”.

Rejecting Germany’s motion to dismiss the claim, the District Court also made the following significant findings:

  • Restitution claims cannot be defended on the basis of technicalities as to whether Jewish victims of Nazi theft were oppressed by their own government or by international actors;
  • Recommendations issued by Germany’s non-binding Limbach Advisory Commission, which advises on the restitution of cultural goods do not adjudicate property rights and do not bar litigation in US court; and
  • US federal courts can hear and resolve complex questions of domestic and foreign law.

The claimants may now proceed to sue Germany for the return of the Guelph Treasure in US court. Their lawyer, Nicholas M. O’Donnell, lauded the District Court’s ruling. “We are pleased that the Court agreed that a forced sale for an inadequate sum to agents of Hermann Göring enjoys no immunity from justice.  The facts show beyond all doubt that the 1935 ‘sale’ was nothing more than a sham transaction”, O’Donnell said.

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