A Berlin court ordered the Deutsches Historisches Museum to return a poster looted by the Gestapo to Peter Sachs, the son of a dentist who was forced to flee Germany before World War II, in a ruling that paves the way for Sachs to claim 4,250 posters from his father’s collection.
Sachs, a retired airline pilot from Sarasota, Florida, filed a lawsuit last year after a German government panel rebuffed his claim in January 2007. The Deutsches Historisches Museum estimates the value of his father’s posters at more than 4.4 million euros ($5.7 million).
Though the decision only orders the return of one poster -- a magazine advertisement showing a red bulldog called “Dogge” by the artist Thomas Theodor Heine -- it establishes Sachs as the rightful owner of the collection, Judge Norbert Stobbe said today. The regional court rejected a counterclaim by the Deutsches Historisches Museum asking it to declare the museum the owner.
“It would be better to have talks aimed at reaching a sensible and fair solution than to continue the court case,” Matthias Druba, Peter Sachs’s Berlin lawyer, said today in a telephone interview. “We hope that the government is wise enough to realize that the longer this drags on, the worse the damage to Germany’s image.”
The Deutsches Historisches Museum, located on Berlin’s Unter den Linden boulevard, is owned by the federal government and the state of Berlin. A government panel led by former Constitutional Court Judge Jutta Limbach rebuffed Sachs’s claim in 2007, saying that his father had accepted compensation and never tried to get the posters back.
“A court has said that the recommendation made by the advisory commission was wrong,” said Druba of Schwarz Kelwing Wicke Westphal in Berlin. “What we want is for the poster collection to be accessible and viewable at all times -- not to be in the archives of the Deutsches Historisches Museum and only on view every three years.”
Museum spokesman Rudolf Trabold declined to comment on the decision. He said the museum is waiting for a printed version of the decision by the panel of three judges and will speak to its lawyers and to ministries before making a statement.
Dieter Vorsteher, the vice-president of the museum, said outside the courtroom after the judges’ announcement that he expects the decision will be contested.
“It will certainly go further,” Vorsteher said.
The Nazis stole about 650,000 artworks, the New York-based Jewish Claims Conference estimates. International restitution guidelines agreed in 1998 -- known as the Washington Principles -- have paved the way for a number of high-profile claims for art in museums by Nazi victims and their heirs.
“It is a shame that the victims’ only option is a lawsuit,” Georg Heuberger, who represents the Jewish Claims Conference in Germany, said by telephone from Frankfurt.
“The point of the Washington Principles was that one should be able to reach a fair and just solution without long court battles,” Heuberger said. “German museums have a duty to give back stolen art without playing for time.”
Hans Sachs was an industrious collector, beginning in his school days. He published a poster magazine called “Das Plakat,” founded a society, held exhibitions and gave lectures. His collection, which included works by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Ludwig Hohlwein, Lucian Bernhard and Jules Cheret, contained 12,500 posters and was at the time the biggest in the world.
The collection was seized in 1938, and when Gestapo officers carted it off, they told Sachs that Joseph Goebbels wanted his posters for a new museum wing dedicated to “business” art.
Sachs was arrested on Nov. 9, 1938, the night of the pogrom against Jews known as Kristallnacht, and sent to Sachsenhausen concentration camp. His wife’s efforts got him freed after three weeks and they fled to the U.S., with Peter, who was then 14 months old.
The father had smuggled out some Toulouse-Lautrec posters, which he sold to feed his family as they began a new life. He never saw his collection again. Presuming it hadn’t survived the war, he accepted compensation of 225,000 deutsche marks (about $50,000 at the time) from the West German government in 1961.
After discovering in 1966 that part of his collection was still intact in East Berlin, Hans Sachs made contact with the communist regime’s authorities to try to get the posters loaned abroad for exhibitions.
In a letter to the museum, Hans Sachs said he felt compensated for his loss by the West German authorities and was happy to learn that the surviving posters were housed together in the museum. He added, though, that nothing could take away the sense of emotional loss which “won’t heal for the rest of my life.”
The court dismissed the museum’s argument that Hans Sachs had relinquished ownership of the collection -- either to a banker friend before the war or through compensation after the war.
“The compensation of 1961 did not lead to the end of his ownership, because at the time the poster collection was believed lost,” according to a press statement issued by the court. “There is no official relinquishment of the property either by Dr. Sachs or by his wife, who died later.”
The court rejected Sachs’s claim for another poster, “Die Blonde Venus” (The Blond Venus), saying that there wasn’t enough evidence it belonged to his father. The 4,250 posters that definitely came from his collection are clearly stamped.
Peter Sachs, who is 71, said he didn’t find out about the collection’s survival until 2005 while doing research to trace copies of his father’s magazine.
“Peter is not a person who wears his feelings on his sleeve, but I just spoke to him on the phone and he was clearly pleased and a little bewildered in terms of what happens next,” Gary Osen, his U.S. lawyer, said by telephone.
The case is LG Berlin, 19 O 116/08.
To contact the writer on the story: Catherine Hickley in Berlin at email@example.com.