The ownership of a trove of religious art worth nearly a quarter of a billion dollars (€205m acquired by the Nazis in 1935 will be considered by the US Supreme Court today.
At the centre of the dispute are 42 items, part of the Guelph Treasure, which has been on display at the Berlin Museum of Decorative Arts since 1963.
They were part of an 82-piece collection acquired by a quartet of Jewish art dealers in 1929. In 1935, the 42 items were sold to a German museum for 4.25 million Reichsmarks.
The objects include a crystal-encrusted cross and bone fragments, said to be from saints, which were brought back from the Crusades.
Descendants of two of the dealers claim the consortium was forced to sell the items at a knockdown price as the Nazis stripped Jews of their property.
Nicholas O’Donnell, their lawyer, said the transaction was a violation of international law because it took place during the Holocaust which, he argues, started when Hitler came to power.
However, this is disputed by the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, which says the deal represented a fair market price. The foundation said its research showed the dealers had tried to sell the items in the US, but were unable to get a satisfactory offer.
In July, Hermann Parzinger, the president of the foundation, told The New York Times it had returned hundreds of pieces of art looted by the Nazis.
“There are those who say that everything that changed hands after Jan 30, 1933, was confiscated under duress,” he said. “But we think each case needs investigating.”
Two lower US courts have ruled in favour of the dealers’ descendants, which prompted the foundation to take the case to the Supreme Court.
Underpinning the dispute is the issue of whether US courts should even consider the case, given it involves a transaction which took place in Germany. (© Daily Telegraph, London)