Catherine Hickley of Bloomberg reports today from Berlin about a court-ordered return of more than 4,000 once owned by Hans Sachs, a Jewish dentist chased out of Nazi Germany. The Bundesgerichtshof (BGH) is Germany’s highest civil court, and handed down the decision.
At one time, Sachs’s collection had more than 12,000 posters by artist that included Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Ludwig Hohlwein, Lucian Bernhard and Jules Cheret. The Deutsches Historisches Museum (DHM) in Berlin, a museum of German history, has held for several decades parts of a poster collection was seized from Sachs in 1938. After his arrest around Kristallnacht and incarceration in Sachsenhausen concentration camp (outside Berlin), Sachs was freed and he, his wife, and 14-month old son fled the country.
Although the elder Sachs was later paid financial compensation, the high court ruled he never lost title to the collection, and his heir (son Peter) is now entitled to it. The DHM seems to have argued that Sachs acceptance of monetary compensation foreclosed the issue, but the court disagreed. The DHM predicted in its statement an opening of the floodgates to new claims as a result, but really that will be driven by what similar objects still reside in Germany (knowledge of which the DHM probably has as well or better than anyone).
The facts of the case offer an interesting comparison of how many restitution claims break down. It seems from the background that the collection was seized because (a) Josef Goebbels wanted it and (b) Sachs was Jewish and therefore a target at the time. Many such objects remained in German museums or with Nazi officials at the end of the war, and great effort was made by the Allies to return them. These works tended to be Old Masters, to which this case is an exception. Contrast other cases involving works that were seized as “degenerate”–i.e. too modernist for Nazi taste (whether owned by persecuted minorities or not) and sold for hard currency outside of Germany itself in the 1930s and 1940s. These works then made and still make their way through the worldwide art market. They also tend to be behind the biggest restitution claims, as they are often late 19th and early 20th century paintings valued highly by today’s market.
Counterintuitively, these days it is rarer to find a wartime restitution dispute about a fine art collection in a German museum collection (as opposed to elsewhere in Europe or in the United States). This is probably because many of the countries occupied by Germany (read: France) didn’t really start taking a hard look at their state museums until the 1990s, and the dormancy of the issue in the United states until the 1990s is well-chronicled. For obvious reasons, German museums have been scrutinized much more, and much of what was taken during the war was given back when possible, made public, or taken to the Soviet Union.