The U.S. Supreme Court will hear an appeal by Germany and the Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz seeking to dismiss a restitution claim by heirs to a treasure tied to Cleveland.
The Guelph Treasure consists of 85 items. In 1930, 82 of those items were sold individually at auctions throughout Berlin and Frankfurt by four Jewish art dealers.
Six were purchased that year by William Mathewson Milliken, then director of the Cleveland Museum of Art in Cleveland, for $200,000. The remaining collection was valued at more than $5 million dollars.
And after being displayed in New York, the rest of the collection was displayed alongside Milliken’s previously acquired works at the Cleveland Museum of Art from Jan. 10, 1931, to Feb. 1, 1931.
“When the Nazi’s consolidated power in Germany, there was a forced sale of the items to the Germans and now descendants of the of the owners have been trying for some time to get the German government to repatriate the items,” Howie Beigelman, executive director of Columbus-based Ohio Jewish Communities, told the Cleveland Jewish News Nov. 4. Beigelman noted the collection of medieval ecclesiastical art had “been declared a national treasure inside Germany.”
Beigelman said Germany maintains the collection did not undergo a forced sale and claims it was legitimate. Now, it’s up to the U.S. Supreme Court to decide.
According to Beigelman, OJC became involved in this matter after being notified of a letter signed by 18 members of Congress, including Joyce Beatty, Steve Chabot, Anthony Gonzalez, Bill Johnson, David P. Joyce, Robert E. Latta, Steve Stivers and Michael Turner of Ohio.
Although the letter does not take a position on the case, it does note bipartisan Congressional action related to Holocaust-era artwork restitution, the timeline of the Holocaust and the scope and nature of genocide are long established.
“Your government seems to be arguing that forced sales of art to the Nazi regime do not constitute takings at all and that the definition of genocide does not include what happened with respect to the full elimination of Jews from German economic life starting in 1933 when Adolph Hitler and the Nazi regime took complete control,” the Oct. 16 dated letter said.
“The timeline of the Holocaust is settled and sacred. This has been the bipartisan position of the United States Congress for a generation. Multiple states across our country have Holocaust education in their curriculum which teaches this timeline to our school children. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum has established this timeline as well.”
The letter pointed to the 2017 Elie Wiesel Genocide and Atrocities Prevention Act, which made clear the scope and nature of genocide. It said the brief filed by Germany suggests genocide is understood as involving infliction of physical killing and harm, but not economic crisis.
“This is deeply concerning,” the letter continued before requesting clarification on points made in the brief, which was submitted to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“I think it’s great that so many Ohio members of Congress joined on this letter and that they’re really pushing the issue,” Beigelman said. “It’s an important issue; it’s a complicated issue, obviously, ... to weigh in on a foreign government being sued by a private citizen. There’s supposed to be a protocol on how to handle this and the descendants of the owner really feel that they’ve been wronged in the process.”