In 2016, Barack Obama signed the Holocaust Expropriated Art Recovery Act, better known as the Hear Act. This bill permits heirs of Holocaust victims to file restitution claims to regain property, either physically or in monetary value, that was forcibly taken by the Nazi regime. The Hear Act will see one of its first relevant cases due to a claim set forth by the heirs of the Jewish Welf dynasty (Welfenhaus).
A History Forged in Conflict
The treasure Welfenschatz, commonly known as the Guelph Treasure, is comprised of 42 Medieval works of art from between the 11th and 15th centuries, and currently sits in a museum in Germany. The heirs are arguing that their relatives were forced, under extreme duress, to sell the works to the Prussian State in 1935 — who were believed to be acting on behalf of the Nazi leader Hermann Goering. After only offering 35% of the works’ total value, most of the dealers fled Germany; a few newspaper reports even describe Goering as presenting the art to Adolf Hitler as a gift.
The defendant, should the case go to trial (as the US already declared legal following an appeal in Washington, DC), would be the Prussian Cultural Foundation (a.k.a. Preussische Kulturbesitz, or SPK) — they currently oversee the museum where the art is being held. Their defense is focused on two things: the fact that the sale occurred 80 years ago (which would have been outside jurisdiction had Obama not ratified the Hear Act), and that there is no proof of a “forced” sale, claiming that the markedly reduced price was due to the Depression.
A Lengthy Battle Awaits
Considering that only 1% of Federal cases go to trial, the heirs of the Welf dynasty could have a very long and expensive time to wait. They’re asking for either the works themselves back, or an equatable sum of $250 million. The odds seem to be in their favor, if history has anything to say about it — one lawyer, a veteran of Holocaust restitution cases, was upset by the German reaction and resistance to establishing justice for their historical wrongdoings.
“No one knows German history better than the Germans, having lived it and having litigated it for 70 years, and it’s very distressing to hear them say such troubling things,” they said.
Hopefully, the historically accurate truth will be told if the case goes to trial, and with justice being served fairly and honorably.