The Supreme Court of the United States issued a ruling today against the heirs of German Jewish art dealers who have spent seven years trying to recover a collection of medieval Christian artifacts, known as the Guelph Treasure. The heirs have claimed that the objects were sold under duress and for a third of its market price to the Prussian state in 1935.
Many had been paying attention to the Guelph Treasure case because of its future implications for restitution suits. Some had believed that, if the Supreme Court sided with the heirs, the case would set a new standard, allowing future restitution cases against foreign countries to be fought in the U.S. But because the Supreme Court sided with Germany on Wednesday, it seems likely that lawsuits of the sort will continue to be subject to the jurisdiction of the given country.
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At issue in the suit was whether or not U.S. courts could claim jurisdiction in this case. Germany argued that its taking of property from its own nationals was a matter of domestic law, not international law. The heirs countered that the sale was “an act of genocide and the taking therefore violated the international law of genocide,” according to the opinion.
The Court’s unanimous 20-page opinion on Federal Republic of Germany v. Philipp, written by Chief Justice John Roberts, ultimately dismissed that argument, writing, “We do not look to the law of genocide to determine if we have jurisdiction over the heirs’ common law property claims. We look to the law of property.”
Beginning in 2014, three heirs—two U.S. citizens and one U.K. citizen—began to seek the recovery of the Guelph Treasure, which had been purchased by a consortium of German Jewish art dealers in 1929. Following the stock market crash later that year, the consortium sold half the Treasure. After Hitler rose to power in 1933, the mayor of Frankfurt tried to seek the leader’s help in acquiring the remaining portion of the Treasure. In 1935, the Nazi-controlled state of Prussia purchased 42 of the remaining 82 objects of the Treasure for 4.25 million Reichsmarks ($1.7 million in 1935 dollars).
After the end of World War II, the Guelph Treasure—which includes “ornate crucifixes and portable altars,” according to SCOTUSblog, some of them dating back to the Holy Roman Empire—was eventually transferred to the government-funded Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, which manages Berlin’s state museums. The Guelph Treasure currently resides in Berlin’s Museum of Decorative Arts.
The heirs contend that the price paid in 1935 was “barely a third” of its value and only about 60 percent of what the consortium had originally paid for it. When they first began their efforts to reclaim the treasure, the heirs approached the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, which conducted an investigation and found that this was not the case.
The two parties then submitted a claim to the German Advisory Commission for the Return of Cultural Property Seized as a Result of Nazi Persecution, Especially Jewish Property. That commission ultimately ruled that “the sale had occurred at a fair price without duress,” according to the Supreme Court opinion. The heirs subsequently filed their suit in U.S. district court in Washington, D.C., seeking $250 million in damages.
“A ‘taking of property’ could be ‘wrongful under international law’ only where a state deprived ‘an alien’ of property,” which was not the case in this suit, the Supreme Court said.
Additionally, the Supreme Court, which typically avoids issuing rulings that could negatively impact international relations, said that siding with the heirs would “arguably force courts themselves to violate international law, not only ignoring the domestic takings rule but also derogating international law’s preservation of sovereign immunity for violations of human rights law.”