As if it weren’t bogged down by enough American concerns, the US Supreme Court agreed to hear a case regarding an art collection that was stolen from a group of Jewish art collectors in 1935.
The collection, known as the “Guelph Treasure” features 82 pieces of medieval ecclesiastical art. It is valued at $250 million.
A group of Jewish art dealers purchased the collection from the Duke of Brunswick in 1929. Less than 10 years later, they sold the collection to Hermann Göring (one of the most powerful figures in the Nazi Party), who presented it as a gift to Adolf Hitler.
Plaintiff and heir Jed Lieber claims his grandfather was forced to sell the collection to Göring at a fraction of its true value. He insists the sale is invalid and that the collection (or equivalent compensation) rightly belongs to him.
“This was purchased by Hermann Göring, perhaps one of the most notorious art thieves of all time for his pal, Adolf Hitler, the monster who killed 6 million people,” argues Lieber.
Lieber and other heirs first brought the case in Germany in 2008, only to be told 8 years later that the Guelph Treasure did not meet the criteria defining a “forced sale due to Nazi persecution.”
The Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, which oversees the museum where the Guelph Treasure is currently on display, agrees the sale was valid because the collectors were compensated fairly. Göring paid 4.25 million Reichsmarks for the collection, a sum that experts consider fair.
Years later, Lieber brought the case to the United States and used the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act to sue Germany and the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation for compensation of property taken from the dealers as “rights in property taken in violation of international law.”
Germany responded by declaring the Guelph Treasure a “national cultural treasure,” meaning it can never leave the country. Germany then told Lieber that FSIA did not apply in this case because the collection had never crossed international borders.
When the DC Circuit Court denied Germany’s motion to dismiss the case, Germany asked the Supreme Court to intervene. They agreed.
In a unanimous decision reached Wednesday, the US Supreme Court ruled that Lieber lacked standing to sue Germany using FSIA because the law’s provision affecting “rights in property taken” is limited to actions between foreign states and thus does not apply to actions between individuals or between an individual and a state.
The court’s decision was based on the “law of property,” not “the law of genocide,” wrote Chief Justice John Roberts. Under international law, the removal of property is unlawful only when the seizure deprives a foreigner of property, he explained.
From here, the case will return to lower courts to determine whether the Nazi’s horrific treatment of Jews makes Lieber’s case an exception to the rule. It is implied that Lieber may have other options to earn compensation from the German government.