A hoard of medieval gold church treasure in a Berlin museum faces conflicting claims from the heirs of Jewish art dealers who say their forefathers were pressured into selling it in 1935 by the Nazis.
Known as the Guelph Treasure, the trove is displayed in the Bode Museum on Berlin’s Museum Island and lawyers for the heirs put its value today at more than $200 million. It was purchased in 1935 by the state of Prussia, then under Hermann Goering’s rule, and has been part of Berlin’s art collection ever since.
The heirs of four of the dealers have marshaled support for their restitution demand from the Israeli government and from Andreas Nachama, a German historian and rabbi.
“The injustice of this deal is clearly apparent given the obvious power imbalance,” Nachama, director of the Topography of Terror exhibition in Berlin, wrote in a report commissioned by the heirs. “The life-threatening, mounting oppression suffered by Jewish traders after 1933 cannot be denied, neither in general nor in this specific case.”
The Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, which oversees Berlin’s art collections, is fighting the claims, saying the sale of the treasure was “a unique case” and not the result of Nazi duress. The dispute is further complicated by a rival claim from the descendants of Hermann Netter, a Frankfurt jewelry dealer whose heirs say he owned 25 percent of the treasure.
The case involves one of Germany’s biggest restitution claims so far. The Guelph trove today comprises 44 pieces dating from the 11th century to the 15th century, primarily precious gem-encrusted reliquaries and crosses. The most valuable piece is a 12th-century domed reliquary, shaped like a church and made of gold, copper and silver with figurines of biblical characters fashioned out of walrus tusk.
The hoard’s first home was the cathedral in Braunschweig. It was added to over the centuries by the House of Guelph, a royal lineage whose descendants include Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II and Princess Caroline of Monaco’s husband, Ernst August of Hanover. It entered the royal dynasty’s possession in 1671.
The Guelph family’s reign over the principality of Braunschweig ended during World War I, and in the 1920s, its members tried to sell the Guelph treasure. They sold 82 items to a consortium of Frankfurt art dealers in 1929.
In the following years, 40 pieces were sold to museums and private collectors. In 1935 the Prussian state, with Goering’s backing, paid 4.25 million Reichsmarks for the remaining treasure and displayed it in a museum in the Berlin city palace.
Markus Stoetzel and Mel Urbach, lawyers for the heirs of Zacharias Hackenbroch, Isaac Rosenbaum, Saemy Rosenberg and Julius Falk Goldschmidt, say the dealers were “coerced and forced by Goering to turn over the collection.”
There is no question that as Jews, the four dealers were victims of Nazi race policies and lost their livelihoods in Germany. Three of them emigrated before World War II. The fourth, Hackenbroch, died in Frankfurt in 1937 -- his family fled to Britain.
Sales of art by Jewish collectors or dealers after 1933 are assumed to have been made under duress and are therefore invalid transactions under laws crafted by the Western Allies that remain valid in Germany. The onus is on the current holder to contradict that assumption.
The Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation argues that the dealers got a fair price for the treasure and says the state of Prussia was the only interested buyer.
Including pieces sold in the preceding years, they earned 6.75 million Reichsmarks -- approximately 85 percent of the price they paid for it, the foundation says.
Representatives for the heirs of Netter, who owned an exclusive jewelry store in Frankfurt, say they need more time to investigate the makeup of the consortium. A second jeweler may have owned a further 25 percent of the treasure, according to Sabine Rudolph, a lawyer at Cramer von Clausbruch in Dresden.
“We entered our claim at the beginning of the year,” Rudolph said by telephone. “We believe this loss was due to persecution. We are still researching it and that requires time. We need to find out who belonged to the consortium.”
Limor Livnat, the Israeli Minister of Culture and Sport, wrote to German Culture Minister Bernd Neumann saying she is following the matter “with great interest,” according to a copy of the letter obtained by Bloomberg News.
The case was to be discussed in September by a German government panel headed by Jutta Limbach, a former constitutional judge. That hearing was adjourned to give participants more time to study new reports.
For the heirs, the wait is frustrating.
“Originally, it would have gone to the generation older than us,” Alan Philipp, 70, the grandson of Zacharias Hackenbroch and a spokesman for the heirs of the four dealers, said in an interview in Berlin. “My aunt died last year at the age of 100. My father died three years ago. This question has been on the table since 2008.”
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