February 3, 2021 — New York
American Jewish Committee (AJC) regrets today’s unanimous Supreme Court decision in the Guelph Treasure case (Federal Republic of Germany v Philipp), which sends the plaintiffs back to Germany to seek justice for their Holocaust-era art restitution claims. “Unfortunately, Germany’s record on these matters has been deficient,” said Rabbi Andrew Baker, AJC Director of International Jewish Affairs.
Over twenty years ago, the Washington Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art, adopted at an international conference organized by the State Department, were heralded as a new means for survivors and their heirs to regain ownership of their looted artwork. Though not legally compelled to do so, governments agreed that they would examine the provenance of their state museum collections and return any art that was originally acquired by Nazi seizures or forced sales.
In Germany, these cases are handled by the Limbach Commission, which ruled in 2014 in favor of the Berlin museum that possessed the collection known as the Guelph Treasure. That decision led the collection’s heirs to seek redress in a U.S. Court.
The Limbach Commission and the attorneys representing the German Government maintained before the Supreme Court that the 1935 sale of the artwork was free and uncoerced, despite the longstanding principle in Holocaust asset matters that any sale occurring after 1933, when the Nazis came to power, should be considered a forced sale. The attorneys for Germany further argued that the looting of Jewish property should not be considered as a part of the genocide of Jews, another principle that until now has governed Germany policy on Holocaust restitution matters.
The Limbach Commission has earned a reputation for its long delays, lack of transparency, and decisions that disfavor the claimants. It will now be up to the German courts and the German government, if necessary, to address these deficiencies.