The United States Court of Appeals recently ruled against allowing the descendants of the Jewish former owners of the Guelph Treasure to have their claim judged on merit in a US court, marking yet another setback in their ongoing legal fight with the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation.
The court ruling on July 13 follows a 2022 regional court ruling and a Supreme Court dismissal in 2021 over the contested items dating from the 11th to the 15th centuries, which include ornate silver, relics, altarpieces, and gold and silver crucifixes. The Guelph Treasure, also known in German as the Welfenschatz, is the largest publicly owned collection of its kind in Germany, valued at up to $250 million.
The most valuable item is a domed reliquary from the 12th century. The ornate object is made of gold, copper, and silver. It is shaped like a church; and features figurines of characters from the Bible carved from walrus tusk.
The Guelph Treasure is currently part of the collection of the Berlin Kunstgewerbemuseum (Applied Arts Museum), which is managed by the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation.
The heirs of Jewish art dealers claim the items were sold under duress and for a third of their market price to the Nazi government in 1935. However, the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation argued that it was immune from US legal decisions under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act due to its status as a German institution. They also argued the sale was not forced and the collection was not in Germany when it was sold.
“This ruling confirms the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation’s view that a claim for the restitution of the Guelph Treasure should not be handled by a US court,” foundation president Hermann Parzinger told the Art Newspaper in a statement.
The legal saga over the Guelph Treasure between the three heirs—two US citizens and one UK citizen—started in 2014. That year, the German Advisory Commission on Nazi-looted art rejected the descendants’ claim the Guelph Treasure had been sold under duress and for less than its market value. The commission upheld the foundation’s view that the sale of the items was not due to persecution and that the financial loss suffered by the consortium of German Jewish Art dealers in 1929 reflected the conditions of the art market during the Great Depression.
The descendants of the Jewish former owners argued that the view of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation does not reflect the experience of what it was like for Jews living in the country after the National Socialist Party seized power in Germany.
The civil litigation attorney for the descendants, Nicholas O’Donnell, expressed disappointment at the ruling.
“We are continuing to review the opinion and consider our next steps,” O’Donnell told the Art Newspaper, which first reported the news. “Germany’s continued refusal to acknowledge the obviously coercive sale involving Hermann Goering’s agents for what it was—theft—stands in stark contrast to Germany’s obligations under the Washington Conference Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art.”