Berlin museums, Jewish heirs in dispute over art
By Kirsten Grieshaber, AP
January 16, 2014, 12:10 am TWN
BERLIN--It's a medieval treasure trove worth an estimated quarter of a billion dollars, filled with gold crosses studded with gems and intricate silverwork. For years, it's been at the center of a dispute between a Berlin museum foundation and the heirs of Holocaust-era Jewish art dealers.
Now a resolution may be in sight: On Wednesday, a German government-created commission convenes to make a recommendation on who rightfully owns the Welfenschatz — or Guelph Treasure.
The heirs claim that their ancestors had no choice but to sell the Christian artifacts in 1935 to the Nazi government for less than their value. The foundation that oversees Berlin's museums says that the collectors were not forced to sell the pieces — arguing among other things that the collection was not even in Germany at the time of its sale.
The collection — which has been on display in Berlin museums since the early '60s — is considered the largest German church treasure in public hands. Some experts have estimated the value of the collection of silver and gold crucifixes, altars and other relics at between 180 -200 million euros (US$246-US$273 million).
The question of the collection's ownership comes at a particularly sensitive time in Germany, following the discovery of more than 1,400 art pieces in the Munich apartment of the son of an art dealer who worked with the Nazis. Descendants of the original Jewish owners of some of those pieces, who now live mostly in Israel and the United States, have criticized the German government for not coming up with a speedy solution on how to either return the art or compensate them for it.
To further heighten tensions surrounding the Guelph Treasure, the Israeli government, in a very unusual move, weighed in on the case by sending a letter to the German government in September making clear it's paying close attention to the commission's recommendation. In the letter, obtained by The Associated Press, Israeli Culture Minister Limor Livnat emphasized "the great importance of this issue to the Jewish people in general, and Holocaust survivors, in Israel and worldwide, in particular."
The commission was created in 2003 specifically to find solutions for disputed restitution cases dating back to the Nazi period where opposing parties are not able to come to an agreement. Its seven members include a former German president, high-ranking former ministers, historians and philosophers. While the panel's recommendations are non-binding, they carry strong moral weight and have almost always been followed in the past. The commission will hear both parties and then come to a conclusion which may be published either Wednesday or in the near future.
The Guelph Treasure, which was assembled over centuries for the Braunschweig Cathedral, includes some of the outstanding goldsmith works of the Middle Ages, among them ornate containers in the form of cathedrals used to store Christian relics. Many of the silver and gold pieces are decorated with jewels and pearls. Some are more than 800 years old.
A consortium of Jewish art dealers from Frankfurt bought the collection, then consisting of 82 pieces, in 1929 from a Braunschweig duke. With the onset of the Great Depression, they were not able to resell all the relics as quickly and profitably as expected; in the early 1930s they still owned half of the collection.