German court mulls restitution of Nazi-seized art

AP 15 March 2012

BERLIN (AP) — Germany’s top federal appeals court is set to rule Friday on whether a Berlin museum must return to a Jewish man from Florida thousands of rare posters that were seized from his father by the Nazis.

Lower courts have ruled that Peter Sachs, the son of collector Hans Sachs, is the rightful owner of the vast collection of advertisements and political propaganda dating back to the late 1800s, and now believed to be worth between euro4.5 million and euro16 million ($6 million to $21 million).

What the Federal Court of Justice in Karlsruhe must decide is whether the law provides for Sachs to get the posters back from the German Historical Museum, a decision complicated by their unique and tumultuous journey through more than 70 years of German history.

It said last month it must “review and clarify” the situation, in which the posters were stolen from Germany’s leading private collector by the Nazis’ Gestapo, moved on to the possession of communist East Germany, then to the Berlin museum after reunification – and now through some five years of legal battles.

“Every court that’s looked at this says that Peter Sachs is the owner of the collection, so from our standpoint the worst case scenario is they say he’s the owner of the collection, but we don’t have a method to help you free your property,” said New Jersey attorney Gary Osen, one of the lawyers representing Sachs.

“It’s just a bizarre nether-world situation.”

Museum spokesman Rudolf Trabold said it is sticking to its position that the posters should remain part of an “open collection” and not with a private individual.

“We’ll have to see what the court has to say,” he said.

Sachs, 74, of Sarasota, is seeking the return of 4,259 posters that have been so-far identified as having belonged to his father. They were among a collection of 12,500 that his father owned, which include advertisements for exhibitions, cabarets, movies and consumer products, as well as political propaganda – all rare, with only small original print runs. It is not clear what happened to the remainder.

The posters were seized from Hans Sachs’ home in 1938 on the orders of Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, who wanted them for a museum of his own.

Born in 1881, Hans Sachs was a dentist who 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.

After the seizure of the posters in the summer, Hans Sachs was arrested during the Nov. 9, 1938, pogrom against the Jews, known as Kristallnacht, or Night of Broken Glass, and thrown in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp north of Berlin.

When he was released about two weeks later, the family did not wait to see what would happen next and fled to the United States.

After the war, Hans Sachs assumed the collection had been destroyed and accepted compensation of about 225,000 German marks (then worth about $50,000) from West Germany in 1961.

He learned five years later, however, that part of the collection had survived the war and been turned over to an East Berlin museum. He wrote the communist authorities about seeing the posters or even bringing an exhibit to the West to no avail. He died in 1974 without ever seeing them again.

The posters became part of the German Historical Museum’s collection in 1990, after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Peter Sachs has said he only learned of the existence of the collection in 2005, and began fighting then for the return of the posters. But there is no clear German law on how he might get them back because of the particular circumstances in the case.

Restitution laws provide for owners of real estate expropriated by East Germany to have it returned now that Germany has been reunified – and for any compensation paid during the decades when Germany was divided to be paid back. But the restitution laws do not address “moveable property” – like the posters – which was never expected to resurface.

In this case, the posters also were not officially expropriated by East Germany, but simply ended up there. Further complicating the issue is that all restitution claims were supposed to have been filed by 1993, before Peter Sachs even knew the posters still existed.

Normal German civil law does provide for the return of such objects, such as when stolen property is relocated, but the question is whether restitution law supersedes regular civil law.

If the court decides that it does, as the museum argues, the posters would stay where they are – in the German Historical Museum, though still owned by Peter Sachs.

“If it were just to be decided under civil law, it would be clear,” said Matthias Druba, a Berlin lawyer who also represents Sachs. “Peter is the owner, and the owner has the right to decide where the things that belong to him should be.”
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