Descendants of Jewish art dealers sue Germany over Medieval artifacts

An example of an ornate case from the Welfenschatz collection. It was most likely used to store Christian relics in the Middle Ages. Credit: The Berlin Museum of Decorative Arts via Wikimedia Commons.

An example of an ornate case from the Welfenschatz collection. It was most likely used to store Christian relics in the Middle Ages. Credit: The Berlin Museum of Decorative Arts via Wikimedia Commons.

(JNS.org) The descendants of Jewish art dealers persecuted during the Holocaust have filed a U.S. lawsuit against Germany, asking that a German museum return a Medieval Christian art collection that belonged to their ancestors. 

The collection, known as the Welfenschatz, is worth an estimated $226 million and was collected over centuries by the Braunschweig Cathedral. The original collection had more than 80 pieces, including works from the Middle Ages such as ornate gold and silver containers used to store Christian relics. Some of the artifacts are more than 800 years old.

In 1929, the Welfenschatz collection was acquired by a consortium of Jewish art dealers who had purchased it from a Braunschweig duke. During the early Nazi era, the Jewish dealers sold what remained of the collection to Prussia, which was controlled by the Nazis. The plaintiffs’ attorneys claim that the art dealers were forced to sell the artifacts at prices far below their market value. This is disputed by the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, which says that the collection was housed at the time in the Netherlands, which did not come under Nazi rule until 1940.

Attorney Nicholas O'Donnell, however, told the Associated Press that “any transaction in 1935, where the sellers on the one side were Jews and the buyer on the other side was the Nazi state, itself is by definition a void transaction.”

Since the 1960s, the collection has been displayed in Berlin’s Museum of Decorative Arts. The lawsuit, which was filed Monday in the U.S. District Court in Washington, DC, is the the most recent attempt to reclaim art works by the descendants of their Nazi-era owners, many of whom were Jewish.

Posted on February 24, 2015 .