Art law Controversies Germany

Advisory body to German government finds against Jewish claimants for the €400m Guelph Treasure

It was not a forced sale, is the reason given

The Guelph Treasure, one of the most important historic groups of medieval art, with an estimated value of €400m, which has been in the Berlin’s Kunstgewerbe Museum for decades, should not be handed over to the heirs of Jewish antique dealers, who put in a claim for it in 2008, recommended Germany’s Limbach Commission on 19 March.

The commission, which is the government-appointed advisory committee on the restitution of cultural goods confiscated as a result of Nazi persecution (called after the name of its chairman, a former president of the federal constitutional court), had been petitioned by both the lawyers for the claimants and the Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz (SPK), the foundation responsible for Berlin’s State museums.

Jorg Michael Cramer von Clausbruch, representing the claimants, announced two days later that he would be pursuing their demand for restitution with the SPK. There was no mention, however, of taking the claim to court and, according to the legal representative of the SPK, such a claim would have “little chance of success“.

The Limbach Commission, which has been called upon to advise on about a dozen restitution cases so far, has spent two months examining the evidence submitted by both parties. Its recommendation is supported by extensive documentation. Hermann Parzinger, president of the SPK, has said that all the evidence uncovered over five years of research will be made available online as soon as copyright and privacy considerations have been clarified.

The commission has confirmed the argument put forward by the SPK, which is that the criteria defining a forced sale due to Nazi persecution do not apply in the case of the Guelph Treasure. The overall purchase price was not unreasonably low, the vendors were paid, and they were free to do what they wanted with the money.

Initially, the consortium behind the Frankfurt art dealers Saemy Rosenberg and Isaak Rosenbaum, and Julius Falk, Arthur Goldschmidt and Zacharias Hackenbroch, had tried to sell the treasure piece by piece to US museums, but only succeeded with 40 of the smaller items, for a total of 2.5m Reichsmark.

The 42 pieces making up more important part of Treasure were bought by Prussia—part of the German Reich—for 4.25m Reichsmark in 1935, slightly less than the asking price of 5m Reichsmark. The consortium, whose members are still not all known, had bought the Treasure from its owner, the Duke of Braunschweig, of the former ruling House of Hannover, in 1929 for 7.5m Reichsmark. Then came the slump, and in the accounts of the dealers, the pieces were marked down at 1.6m Reichsmark. Investigations by the SPK have demonstrated that the money was duly transferred to the vendors, who by this time were all living abroad, through the Dresdner Bank.

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