WASHINGTON (CN) - Germany refuses to let go of a $250 million art collection stolen by a top Nazi official who gave it to Adolph Hitler as a "surprise gift," heirs of the dealers claim in a federal complaint.
Alan Philipp and Gerald Stiebel filed the complaint Monday against Germany and the Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz, otherwise known as the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation.
The 71-page complaint says Nazis coerced the sale of the Welfenschatz, resulting in a payment of "barely 35 percent of its market value to the consortium - or even as little as 15 percent, according to contemporary German state museum professionals."
It was because Nazi threats of violence crippled three art dealers in Frankfurt - J&S Goldschmidt, I. Rosenbaum and Z.M. Hackenbroch - in 1935 that the dealers sought a buyer for Welfenschatz, a valuable collection of medieval relics, according to the action.
The heirs say the Gestapo nevertheless interjected after catching wind of the deal to sell Welfenschatz at a fair-market price.
"The Nazi's crowning touch was to intercede just when a willing fair market buyer for the Welfenschatz appeared, to dictate that any further arms'-length negotiations cease, through which the Consortium could have realized the value of its property," the complaint states. "With the market duly fixed, and their own situation having descended into ahistorical levels of persecution, humiliation, and risk, the Consortium relented in 1935. From the Consortium's perspective, the 'deal' - for 4.25 million RM (barely 35 percent of its actual value) split and partly paid only into a blocked account - was a predicament and without any alternative." (Parentheses in original.)
Notorious Nazi higher-up Hermann Goering deemed himself the savior of Welfenschatz, the heirs say, adding that he claimed to have "forcefully and punitively 'rescued' the collection from the Jews."
The heirs to those dealers claim they suffered a "parallel victimization" in 2014 by the German-appointed commission to sort out the art stolen under the Nazi regime.
That commission, the heirs claim, is lip service to add credence to the country's international commitments to come up with solutions for Nazi-looted art. Even the non-binding recommendations that the commission issues are not declarations of property rights, according to the complaint.
"That Advisory Commission, since being established in 2003 as a governmental entity, has shown a disturbing tendency to ignore longstanding principles of international law - chief among them the unassailable principle that a sale by owners like the Consortium in Nazi Germany was by definition coercive and void," the heirs say.
According to the complaint, Welfenschatz, or House of Guelph, consists of dozens of medieval reliquary and devotional objects originally housed in Brunswick Cathedral in Germany. Pieces of the collection include alters, crosses and tablets dating from the 11th to 15th centuries.
The Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation has the collection in its possession.
Philipp and Stiebel want Germany and the foundation to return the art, or pay the $250 million they claim it's worth.
They are represented by Nicholas O'Donnell of Sullivan Worcester in Boston, Mass.
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