Berlin’s Bode Museum.(MICHAEL KAPPELER/AFP/Getty Images)
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Jewish Heirs Lay Claim to German Treasure

Say $200 million Guelph Treasure was sold under duress in 1935

Rachel Silberstein
October 09, 2013
Berlin's Bode Museum.(MICHAEL KAPPELER/AFP/Getty Images)

The descendants of four Jewish art dealers are staking claim to a Medieval church treasure displayed at a Berlin museum, which they say was sold under duress in 1935, Bloomberg Businessweek reports. The Guelph Treasure, which contains items dating as far back as the 11th century, is a trove of 44 gold, copper, and silver pieces, mostly reliquaries and crosses, dripping with precious gems and walrus tusk figurines. It’s currently displayed in the Bode Museum on Berlin’s Museum Island.

Purchased in 1935 by the State of Prussia, then under Hermann Goering’s rule, the trove would later become part of the Berlin Art Collection—and is now one of the largest restitution claims against Germany, with an estimated value of $200 million, according to lawyers for the heirs.

Bloomberg traces the Guelph Treasure’s trajectory:

The hoard’s first home was the cathedral in Braunschweig. It was added to over the centuries by the House of Guelph, a royal lineage whose descendants include Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II and Princess Caroline of Monaco’s husband, Ernst August of Hanover. It entered the royal dynasty’s possession in 1671.

The Guelph family’s reign over the principality of Braunschweig ended during World War I, and in the 1920s, its members tried to sell the Guelph treasure. They sold 82 items to a consortium of Frankfurt art dealers in 1929.

In the following years, 40 pieces were sold to museums and private collectors. In 1935 the Prussian state, with Goering’s backing, paid 4.25 million Reichsmarks for the remaining treasure and displayed it in a museum in the Berlin city palace.

Sales by Jewish German merchants after 1933 are presumed to be coerced under laws upheld by German courts and are therefore today considered invalid, but the the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, which oversees German art collections, says this sale was an exception and that the merchants were compensated fairly.

Since the claim was filed, the descendants of two non-Jewish art dealers have surfaced, each claiming 25 percent ownership of the treasure before the war. The Israeli government and German historian Andreas Nachama have chimed in too, and the details of the pre-war transaction are still being investigated.

Rachel Silberstein is a writer living in New York.

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