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Supreme Court to Hear Guelph Treasure Case
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Supreme Court to Hear Guelph Treasure Case

Nazi-looted art case hinges on jurisdictional question; Germany attempting ‘to rewrite history,’ lawyer for heirs says.

This medieval dome reliquary, from the 12th century, is part of the Guelph Treasure. (Courtesy of Nicholas M. O’Donnell)
This medieval dome reliquary, from the 12th century, is part of the Guelph Treasure. (Courtesy of Nicholas M. O’Donnell)

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed Thursday to decide whether the heirs of a consortium of four German Jewish art dealers may use American courts to pursue their claims that a collection of medieval relics sold to Nazi Germany at one-third their value in 1935 was a legitimate or a coerced sale.

Although the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit held in 2018 that U.S. courts have jurisdiction under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, the German government and the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. They argued that the case should be dismissed and resolved in German courts and that Germany’s treatment of Jews in the 1930s should be immune from judicial scrutiny. They were supported in their appeal by the U.S. Department of Justice.

Hermann Parzinger, president of the foundation where the collection (known as the Guelph Treasure and valued at $250 million) now resides, said he welcomed the court’s decision.

Nicholas O’Donnell, the attorney for the heirs, said he is “grateful for the opportunity” to resolve this issue to hold “Germany accountable for its Nazi-looted art. A 1935 transfer from German Jews to notorious art looter and war criminal Hermann Goering is the quintessential crime against international law, regardless of Germany’s Holocaust distortion in defending this case.”

Germany claims its persecution of Jews in the 1930s was not a crime under international law and can never form the basis of a restitution claim against it. The Court of Appeals rejected that argument, saying Germany’s boycott of Jewish-owned businesses and exclusion of Jews from certain professions created “conditions of life calculated to bring about [a group’s] physical destruction ….”

In addition, O’Donnell noted that the Court of Appeals pointed out that Congress “expressly found that the Holocaust began in 1933.” He said this appeal would be an “opportunity to rebuke the Department of Justice and State Department, who turned their back on decades of U.S. policy by siding with Germany’s effort to keep Nazi-looted art.”

He said Germany has 45 days to reply, that his response is due 30 days later, followed by their reply and oral arguments in perhaps January or February with a decision no later than a year from now.

“We hope to correct Germany’s attempt to rewrite history,” O’Donnell said.

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