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Germany Not Liable for Nazi Seizure of Art Cache

(CN) - The heirs of a prominent World War II-era art dealer who was killed by Nazis after they seized and sold his art and tapestry collection cannot sue Germany, the 6th Circuit ruled.

"As appalling as the Nazi's actions were, the reverberations felt from them in Nashville were derivative of Germany's seizure and not direct effects," Judge Boyce Martin Jr. wrote for a three-judge panel.

The Cincinnati-based federal appeals panel said it was nearly persuaded that the claims against Germany lobbed by the heirs of Walter Westfeld qualify, unlike others, for an exception of the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act as acts connected to commercial activity.

Westfeld's heirs failed, however, to "establish that Germany's actions had a sufficiently direct effect in the United States to support applying this exception," Martin wrote.

Retired Nashville professor Fred Westfeld had filed the lawsuit after learning about his late uncle's collection from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, which had one of Westfeld's paintings in its Dutch Masters collection.

Westfeld, who was Jewish, had attempted to flee Germany with his valuable collection. The art dealer had a brother living in Nashville, but he could not get out of Europe because his passport had expired.

When the Nazis apprehended Westfeld, they tortured him, threw him in prison for 3 1/2 years and fined him 300,000 reichsmarks for a trumped-up currency violation, the heirs claimed.

"Before the sentence and fine were finalized, the district attorney's office in Dusseldorf ordered that Westfeld's art and tapestry collection be sold to satisfy the fine," the ruling states. "The heirs explain this was a common practice in Nazi Germany that allowed the government to raise funds. Lempertz, the German auction house, auctioned off Westfeld's collection under orders from the German government on December 12 and 13, 1939. The heirs eventually obtained a copy of the auction catalogue, which describes more than 500 tapestries and pieces of artwork from Westfeld's collection that Lempertz sold."

The heirs claim that Nazi Germany acquired even more of Westfeld's collection while the dealer was in prison and sold it after he had been killed. After the war, a Dusseldorf overturned the fine and sentence against Westfeld.

Professor Westfeld learned much of this information from the museum in 2004. Westfeld's heirs argue that Germany's actions had a "direct effect" on the United States. If Germany had not interfered with the dealer's plans to bring his collection across the Atlantic, Westfeld's family in Nashville and the U.S. art market would benefitted, they claimed.

The District Court granted Germany's motion to dismiss based on the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, and the 6th Circuit affirmed on Wednesday.

The ruling states that although Germany's seizure of the artwork intended for Tennessee affected the United States, it did not have a direct effect.

"While we do not question that Westfeld genuinely wished to transfer his artwork to Nashville, finding a direct effect based on plans to send property to the United States would largely eliminate the protections of sovereign immunity," Martin wrote.


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