Members of Congress rebuke Germany over pending SCOTUS art restoration case

Art Critics

The case concerns a collection of art sold to the Nazis by Jewish art dealers in 1935

Kjetil Ree

Supreme Court of the United States

A bipartisan group of lawmakers is raising concerns over efforts by the German government to petition the Supreme Court to dismiss a case involving property purchased from Jews by the Nazis in 1935.

In a strongly worded letter to German Ambassador to the U.S. Emily Haber, members of Congress expressed concern about Berlin’s petition to the Supreme Court in relation to more than half of the famed Guelph Treasure, a collection of more than 80 pieces of medieval art. The German government has argued that it cannot be sued under U.S. law over the pieces, sold in 1935 by a collective of Jewish art dealers to Nazi agents, and now displayed in a German museum. 

Heirs of the items’ Jewish owners are suing in U.S. court to recover the 42 pieces of art, arguing that they were sold under duress for far less than their true value.

In their letter, the representatives — including Reps. Jim Banks (R-IN), Abigail Spanberger (D-VA), Elaine Luria (D-VA), Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ) and Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) — express concerns about the German government’s arguments in the case, claiming that suits over stolen property during the Holocaust are permitted under U.S. law.

The letter highlights concerns regarding the German brief filed in the case, which argues in part that the transfer did not occur under duress and that the forcible seizure of artwork does not constitute an act of genocide.

“We are concerned that the brief your government has filed has attempted to distinguish the forced sale of the cultural artwork collection in question from ‘expropriation’ under international law,” the letter reads. “Putting aside the legal argument… 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… the full elimination of Jews from German economic life starting in 1933.”

“The brief your government filed seems to suggest that genocide is understood as involving infliction of physical killing and harm, but not economic crimes,” the letter continues. “This is deeply concerning.”

The German Embassy did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Spanberger explained to JI that a rabbi in her district, Dovid Asher, brought the issue to her attention. She emphasized that legislators sought specifically to raise concerns about “the missing historical context” in the German government’s brief, and not to weigh in on the case as a whole.

The letter seeks to “reiterate the U.S. Congressional record on the Holocaust and genocide more broadly,” Spanberger said in a statement. “As the international community continues to work toward justice and to educate people of all backgrounds and generations about the Holocaust, it is important that we recognize the full-scope of systemic persecution that took place.”

In a statement to JI, Banks expressed support for the families suing the German government.

“The U.S. Congress can’t give back the millions of lives taken during the Holocaust and it can’t come close to righting Nazi Germany’s wrongs, but we can do our part to give the victims’ ancestors back a small part of what was stolen from them,” he said.

Asher told JI that he approached Spanberger because she had been receptive and approachable on a variety of issues of concern to the Jewish community since being elected in 2018.

“She is incredibly thoughtful, incredibly sensitive, and incredibly kind,” he said. “Whether the issue pertains to Israel or to antisemitism in the U.S. or abroad or Holocaust issues, I knew that I would have somebody in our corner who would fight on behalf of what’s right.”

Oral arguments in the case are set for Dec. 7.

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