US Supreme Court rules against Jewish heirs seeking recovery of Guelph Treasure

On Wednesday, the US supreme court rejected the claims of Jewish heirs who sought to sue Germany for taking property from its own citizens. The court cited the 1976 Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA) for the basis of its unanimous ruling. 

According to Chief Justice John Roberts, the FSIA allows lawsuits to be brought for property taken in violation of international law but “does not cover expropriations of property belonging to a country’s own nationals.” The federal law protects other countries from lawsuits in the US and does not permit exceptions for claims made by the nation’s own citizens as part of a human rights violation.

The long-running case centres around the medieval Guelph Treasure, which includes 82 artifacts in total and is estimated to be worth around €250 million (£218.7 million). During the height of Nazi power, the silver came to the attention of Hermann Goering (1893-1946), Adolf Hitler’s (1889-1945) second in command and prime minister of Prussia. In 1935 Goering allegedly threatened the consortium of Jewish art dealers who owned 42 of the artifacts to sell them for substantially less than they were worth.  

The Guelph Treasure is presently displayed at the Kunstgewerbemuseum in Berlin. In 2014, a German advisory commission found that the collection had been sold voluntarily and thus it was acquired legitimately by the museum. Three heirs of the former owners subsequently brought the high-profile case against Germany on the grounds that the transaction was one of the countless forced sales of artworks under the Nazi regime. 

As a nation, we would be surprised — and might even initiate reciprocal action — if a court in Germany adjudicated claims by Americans that they were entitled to hundreds of millions of dollars because of human rights violations committed by the United States government years ago,” commented Justice Roberts. “There is no reason to anticipate that Germany’s reaction would be any different were American courts to exercise the jurisdiction claimed in this case.” 

Nevertheless, Justice Roberts revealed the court had not considered an alternative argument that suggested the owners were no longer German nationals in 1935. Many Jewish people lost their rights as citizens during the time of the Holocaust and were therefore determined as “non-citizens” in Germany. 

The heirs of the former owners will have another chance to present their case in a US district court following the recent rejection. Nicholas O’Donnell, the lawyer for the heirs, said “my clients are obviously disappointed in the court’s ruling, we are considering our next steps for when the case returns to the district court.” Some have argued this decision could hinder similar restitution cases in the future.

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