The family representative is Fred Westfield of Nashville, Tennessee -- the Westfelds anglicized the name -- who was celebrating his 12th birthday when he last saw his uncle Walter in 1938. Soon after, Westfeld was arrested on currency violation charges. He was interrogated by the Gestapo, sent to prison and then to Auschwitz, where he was murdered, probably in 1943.
The Westfield family's decision to sue Germany for damages is unusual. In most cases, the heirs of Nazi victims have sought the restitution of individual art works. The suit, filed in the Chancery Court for Davidson County, estimates that the value of Westfeld's collection, which also included paintings by Peter Paul Rubens, Arnold Boecklin, Anthony Van Dyck and Frans Hals, would now be ``tens of millions'' of dollars.
``There are several hundred items and we don't know where they all are,'' Jeffrey Schoenblum, a lawyer representing the Westfield family, said by telephone. ``It would be really difficult to locate all the works of art, which may be scattered around the world. We are suing the German government. It bears the legal and moral responsibility.''
According to Jewish Claims Conference estimates, about 650,000 art works were plundered by the Nazis during Adolf Hitler's 12-year rule. Hitler appointed a commission to hunt down old masters for a planned museum in his home town of Linz, while Hermann Goering scoured Europe to expand the private collection he kept at his country estate near Berlin.
German Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Amelie Utz said the lawsuit is ``in very early stages of the process'' and is being examined by the government and justice authorities. Torsten Albig, a spokesman for the Finance Ministry, said ``the big question here is sovereign immunity.''
The U.S. Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act sets limitations on how a foreign nation can be sued in U.S. courts. The Westfields argue their case should be subject to an exemption to the immunity.
Westfeld's three brothers all ended up in Nashville. All three are now dead and it is their children who are suing for damages, through the state court in Tennessee.
Fred Westfield is now 81 and a retired professor of economics at Vanderbilt University. He noticed in 2004 that the Boston Museum of Fine Arts had posted information about the uncertain provenance of a painting in its collection, ``Portrait of a Man and a Woman in an Interior'' by the 17th-century Dutch painter Eglon van der Neer, on its Web site.
After Westfield got in touch, a researcher at the museum tracked down the catalog for the sale of Walter Westfeld's collection at the Cologne auction house Lempertz in 1939.
Two Sets of Heirs
The Westfields' case is further complicated by differing views over who is Westfeld's rightful heir. The art dealer had no children and never married. His fiancee Emilie Scheulen was declared his wife and heir by a Dusseldorf court in 1956.
Scheulen, who was not a Jew, helped Westfeld try to smuggle his art out of Germany and was also jailed on currency charges. The couple had previously been interrogated for ``Rassenschande,'' or mixed-race sexual relations, a crime under the Nazis, according to historian Monica Tatzkow.
From his prison cell, Westfeld managed to write a will naming Scheulen as his heir on a piece of gray linen and secretly delivered it to her. Scheulen, who died in 1990, was compensated by the German government for the loss of Westfeld's art works in the 1950s. Her heirs are seeking restitution of individual works.
Tatzkow, who helps families recover lost art and is working for Emilie's heirs, has written a book about the loss of Westfeld's collection that will be published this month. She is also the co-author of ``Nazi-Looted Art,'' a handbook of restitution cases.
``I have been predicting for some time that the Federal Republic of Germany would be sued for damages relating to looted art,'' Tatzkow said. ``There is some suspense about how the government will respond. Only time will tell whether this case is an appropriate one.''
According to the Westfields' lawyer Schoenblum, the claims by Scheulen's heirs are ``not relevant'' to the Westfield case in Tennessee. The Nashville court ``recognizes our clients as the sole heirs of the Tennessee estate,'' he said.
``The Tennessee estate includes any claims that can be brought before a state or federal court in Tennessee,'' said Schoenblum, an independent lawyer who is also a professor at Vanderbilt University Law School in Nashville, which isn't involved in the case.
The case is Westfield vs. Federal Republic of Germany, No. 08-2202-I, Chancery Court for Davidson County, Tennessee.http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=20601088&sid=agZqCvEhgE3o&refer=home