Germany, Hungary Prevail at High Court in Holocaust Treasure Case

These 2014 photos show (left) the 13th century medieval Dome Reliquary and (right) a medieval cross, artifacts belonging to the Welfenschatz on display at the Bode Museum in Berlin. The heirs of several Nazi-era Jewish art dealers have spent nearly a decade trying to persuade German officials to return the collection of medieval relics valued at more than $250 million. ( AP Photo/Markus Schreiber, File)

WASHINGTON (CN) — The Supreme Court on Wednesday torpedoed a pair of lawsuits against Germany and Hungary from the heirs of Jewish art dealers seeking restitution for a medieval collection sold to the Nazis in 1935, now estimated to be worth a quarter of a billion dollars.

Known as the Welfenschatz or the Guelph Treasure, the collection at issue includes 42 silver religious artifacts — said by some sources to have been gifted to Adolph Hitler himself by Hermann Goering, the Nazi leader of the state of Prussia. For decades, the treasure has been displayed at the Museum of Decorative Arts in Berlin. The Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, which owns the collection and runs the museum, denies modern assertions that the artifacts were sold during the Holocaust at below-market value. 

Seeking to be declare as the rightful owners of the collection, Alan Philipp and Rosalie Simon, the heirs of two Holocaust victims, initiated separate lawsuits in the United States.

Generally, the Foreign Services Immunity Act limits whether foreign nations can be sued in U.S. federal or state courts, but Philipp and Simon claimed that Hungary and Germany do not qualify for sovereign immunity under an exception where property was “taken in violation of international law.”

After oral arguments in December, however, the high court disagreed.

“These laws do not speak to sovereign immunity,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the unanimous court Wednesday. “That is the province of the FSIA, which provides the carefully constructed framework necessary for addressing an issue of such international concern. The heirs have not shown that the FSIA allows them to bring their claims against Germany. We cannot permit them to bypass its design.”

After ruling unanimously against Philipp, the court summarily vacated Simon’s win. Though Roberts said the heirs had not managed to prove that their cases belong in U.S. courts, Philipp and Simon will get another change to make that showing when their cases return to District Court

Philipp’s attorney Nicholas O’Donnell of Sullivan & Worcester indicated Wednesday that he and Philipp, as well as his other clients in this suit, have not yet decided how to proceed from here.

“My clients are obviously disappointed in the Court’s ruling,” said O’Donnell. “We are considering our next steps for when the case returns to the District Court.”

Similarly, attorney David Weinstein of the Philadelphia-based firm Weinstein Kitchenoff & Asher, who represents Simon, said that his legal team is still studying the decision in Wednesday’s decision, but believes it “leaves plenty of room for plaintiffs in Simon v. Hungary to prevail on remand.”

Germany’s attorney Jonathan Freiman of Wiggin & Dana said the country was pleased with the Supreme Court’s ruling Wednesday.

“Any claim over the Welfenschatz does not belong in a U.S. court,” he said.

Gregory Silbert, an attorney for the Hungarian government with the New York City-based firm Weil Gotshal & Manges, did not immediately respond for comment.

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