A complaint was filed this week in a US court which seeks the return of the Guelph Treasure, a famous collection of German medieval items, currently held by the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation. The complaint is being brought by descendants of the one-time Jewish owners of the treasure, who had to part with it in 1935. The collection had in fact been sold by the family, but the critical question was whether it was a regular or a forced sale.
The US courts have in general been more favourable to seemingly extra-jurisdictional restitution claims relating to Holocaust material. The quintessential example of this was the Altmann case, which made it up to the Supreme Court, and resulted in the eventual return of Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer to the elderly Maria Altmann (to be played by Helen Mirren in the upcoming BBC-produced film). In fact, the District of Columbia court in which the present action was filed is the same forum chosen by David Toren in his claim for the return of the Max Liebermann painting found in the Gurlitt hoard. None of this would be lost on counsel for the current claimants, Nicholas O’Donnell, who as editor of the Art Law Report, knows a thing or two about these matters.
The Guelph Treasure claim comes on the heels of a recommendation by the German Holocaust restitution advisory commission not to have the collection returned to the claimants. Needless to say, the complaint filed this week lambasts the recommendation. In doing so, the claim seeks to undermine the general validity of the commission’s approach. Some may argue that, by bringing the claim in the US, this is being done through the back door; others may say that it is about time that the retention-favouring commission be put in its place.
Watch this space for more, but judging from the 143-page complaint (half of which are exhibits), it doesn’t look as though this matter will be winding down anytime soon.