American fights for art seized by Nazis

AP 19 January 2009

In this Jan. 23, 2007 file photo, a poster from Hans Sachs' Poster Collection is exhibited at the German Historical Museum in Berlin. Peter Sachs was only a year old in 1938, the Nazis seized his Jewish father's collection of 12,500 rare posters on the orders of Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels. Today they are worth at least euro4.5 million (US$5.9 million) and Sachs is taking the German Historical Museum to court Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2009 to try to get them back. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber, file) - AP

— When Peter Sachs was only a year old in 1938, the Nazis seized his father's collection of 12,500 rare posters on the orders of Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels.

Sachs' father, Hans – a Jewish dentist – was then thrown into the Sachsenhausen concentration camp north of Berlin. After his wife managed to secure his release, the family fled to Boston – leaving the posters behind.

Today, some 4,000 of the posters, worth at least euro4.5 million ($5.9 million), are in the possession of the German Historical Museum in Berlin, largely in storage. Peter Sachs goes to court Tuesday to try to get them back.

"I think that any disposition of the posters would be preferable to their languishing in a museum for 70 years without ever seeing the light of day," Sachs told the AP in a telephone interview from his home in Sarasota, Florida.

The posters include advertisements for exhibitions, cabarets, movies, and consumer products, as well as political propaganda – all rare, with only small original print runs. One jewel of the collection was a 1932 poster for "Die Blonde Venus" – The Blonde Venus – a film starring Marlene Dietrich. It formed the basis for Sachs' suit when he filed it last year, but museum officials say it is not part of the Sachs collection they have.

Only a handful of the posters on display at any given time but museum officials say they form an integral part of its 80,000-piece collection. The museum also points out that those in storage are regularly viewed by researchers.

The suit at the Berlin administrative court is the latest step in a case that has dragged over several years.

Sachs, 71, lost his first attempt to have the posters returned through a German restitution panel, known as the Limbach Commission, which ruled in 2007 that the museum was the rightful owner. But Gary Osen, Sachs' Oradell, New Jersey-based attorney, said he is more confident of recovering the posters through the German legal system at Tuesday's one-day hearing.

In ruling against Sachs, the Limbach Commission cited a letter from Hans Sachs and a 1960s-era compensation payment of 225,000 German marks (approximately US$50,000 at the time) from the West German government as grounds for keeping them in Germany.

In the letter to a West German friend, dated 1966, Hans Sachs said he viewed the payment as appropriate compensation.

But Osen said Sachs had accepted the payment under the belief the collection was destroyed. And he said there is widely established precedent for the return of confiscated property, when it becomes possible, in exchange for the repayment of compensation.

Museum spokesman Rudolf Trabold referred calls to the institution's attorney Ludwig von Pufendorf, who declined to comment on the case, saying it was inappropriate ahead of a court hearing.

Born in 1881, Hans Sachs began collecting posters while in high school. By 1905, he was Germany's leading private poster collector and later launched the art publication Das Plakat, or The Poster.

The collection was seized in the summer of 1938 on the order of Goebbels, who wanted it for a museum.

On Nov. 9, 1938, during the Kristallnacht pogrom against Jews, Hans Sachs was arrested and thrown into Sachsenhausen. He was released two weeks later thanks to the efforts of his wife, who somehow managed to wrangle British visas for him and the family. They fled and eventually ended up in the United States.

It wasn't until the mid-1960s that Hans Sachs learned that an East Berlin museum had part of the collection. It is assumed that the rest was either stolen or destroyed in the war.

He wrote to the communist authorities about seeing the posters or even bringing an exhibit to the West, to no avail, and died in 1974 without seeing them again.

After communism fell, the collection was turned over to the German Historical Museum in 1990.

Peter Sachs initially sued last March for the return of only "Die Blonde Venus." When the museum said it wasn't in its collection, the suit was broadened to include a second poster for Simplicissimus, a satirical German weekly magazine, showing a red bulldog.

Osen said the idea was that if the court awarded Sachs one poster, it would set a precedent for the return of all of them.

But the museum has countersued, asking for the court to decide on the entire collection and estimating the value at some euro4.5 million.

The German system assesses court costs and attorney fees based on the value of the case being decided, and Sachs' Berlin attorney Matthias Druba said the move appeared to be a tactic to put financial pressure on his client.

But Von Pufendorf rejected that, saying that the museum was simply trying to get the matter resolved entirely and protect itself from future litigation.

If the court decides after the one-day hearing in his favor, Sachs said he is not sure what he would do with the posters.

"It would be a wonderful thing if there could be museums that could have them on permanent display," he said.
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