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Courthouse doors slam in US against relic-restitution fight

The heirs of two Holocaust victims reached the end of the road in their quest to take control of the Guelph Treasure, a collection of 42 religious artifacts said to have once belonged to Adolf Hitler.

WASHINGTON (CN) — U.S. courts will not decide whether Nazi rule helped the Prussian state acquire a world-renowned collection of medieval German ecclesiastical art in 1935, concluding a long-running court battle initiated by the heirs of Holocaust victims.

The dismissal order in Washington from U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly quickly spurred celebration by the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, a group founded in 1957 to preserve the collection known as the Guelph Treasure and other property that belonged the Prussian state after the Allies abolished the state in the conclusion of World War II.

“SPK has also long maintained that this lawsuit lacked merit, as the Guelph Treasure’s sale in 1935 was not a forced sale due to Nazi persecution," Hermann Parzinger, president of the foundation, said in a statement Wednesday, abbreviating the German translation of its name, Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz.

The foundation insists that many years of provenance research back up its position that about the Guelph Treasure — in German, it's called the Welfenschatz — and that it has allowed the rightful owners to reclaim several hundred works of art as well as more than 2,000 books when the sales did not stand up to scrutiny over the years.

It was seven years ago that Alan Philipp, Gerald G. Stiebel and Jed R. Leiber, all descended from Jews who operated successful art dealerships before the Holocaust, brought a lawsuit in Washington that accused the foundation of exploiting Nazi persecution to pay below-market prices when it acquired the treasure in 1935. They even claimed that the Prussian state's Nazi leader Hermann Goering personally gifted the collection to Adolf Hitler.

Philipp, Stiebel and Leiber's case initially marked the first time that a court required Germany to defend itself in the U.S. against charges of looted Nazi art. Though the D.C. Circuit would go on to advance the case, the Supreme Court unanimously sank the battle last year, finding no basis for the suit to have been filed in a U.S. court.

Judge Kollar Kotelly considered on remand a new theory raised by the Holocaust victims' descendants, which hinged on the clam that their ancestors were not German nationals at the time of the sale because of how Jews were treated in the country.

"Even assuming arguendo that such argument was preserved," she wrote, "this Court finds that Plaintiffs failed to provide adequate information in support of their contention that the art dealers were not German nationals at the time of the sale. ... On the record before this Court, the Court finds that Plaintiffs fail to meet their burden of pleading facts establishing that the Consortium members were not German nationals at the time of the sale."

Attorneys for Phillipp, Stiebel and Leiber did not respond to a request for comment. 

As noted in their filings, the men say their ancestors were part a group of art collectors who acquired the Guelph Treasure from the Duke of Brunswick-Lüneberg in 1929 and began selling parts of the collection to museums and individuals the following year. Once owned by German royalty, the treasure includes altars, crosses and various gilded vessels used to store Christian relics.

The collection contained German medieval era Christian relics dated between the 11th and 15th century. One reliquary from the collection that can be seen at the Art Institute of Chicago contains a tooth attributed to St. John the Baptist. 

In Berlin, the bulk of the collection has been on display since the 1960s at the Kunstgewerbemuseum (Museum of Decorative Arts), which is run by the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation. 

“SPK has also long maintained that this lawsuit lacked merit, as the Guelph Treasure’s sale in 1935 was not a forced sale due to Nazi persecution,” Parzinger, the foundation's president, said in the statement Wednesday.

Philipp and the other heirs first tried to sue over the collection in Germany. That 2008 case was dismissed, however, after a German commission determined that the 1935 sale was fair. They filed the Washington suit a year later.

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