A prized medieval artwork known as the “Guelph Treasure” was taken from a Jewish dealer during the Nazi regime in 1935 and now the Germans won’t give it back. Last week the art dealer’s descendants Alan Philipp and Gerald Stiebel filed a lawsuit in a U.S. Court to have their family treasure returned.
The Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, overseers of Berlin’s state museums, denies the claim. They say that a fair market price was paid, that it wasn’t a compulsory sale, that there was no persecution and that Germany took possession of the artwork in 1935, a time that predates the Holocaust “by several years.”
How odd that a German “cultural heritage” group would fail to remember that Adolf Hitler took power in 1933 complete with the Gestapo. Court papers filed by the plaintiffs’ lawyers make the case that the Nazis forced the sale:
“By any measure of the Holocaust, things had already descended to a horrific level by 1935, when German Jews were being ostracized, beaten and driven from their homes and property. There is a creeping sense in this motion and other pronouncements in the past two years, specifically in the context of art looting, that the early to mid-1930s are seen through rose-tinted glasses, something we haven’t seen from German authorities until this recent shift. That’s really dangerous.”
Of course, seizing private property in times of war has a long history and was so prevalent that returning it rightful owners would empty museums of their holdings. For instance, in World War II, the Red Army Trophy Brigade enriched Russia’s State Hermitage Museum with art treasures belonging to private collectors in Germany. The stolen art included impressionist works by Degas, Van Gogh, Cezanne, Monet and Renoir. The Louvre holds numerous old masters that Napoleon’s armies looted from Italy and neighboring lands. And as if conceding the possibility of wrongdoing, the Louvre’s former chief curator, Germain Bazin, wrote in 1967, “Perhaps some future age will find immoral that what we think entirely natural.“
So “natural” was the seizing of art belonging to others that German poet Friedrich von Schiller lyricized about it: What the art of Greece created/Let the Frank by dint of battle carry to his vaunted Seine./Let him in superb museums/Show the trophies of his valor/To the marveling citizen.
But here’s the thing. Germany was not at war at the time of the so-called “sale” in question. There was, however, an active Nazi policy to persecute Jews. For the Germans to say that the acquisition of a work from Jewish art dealers had nothing to do with anti-Semitism is like saying that the Arab problem with Jews began when the state of Israel was established in 1948. Even a superficial reading of the Old Testament makes clears that hatred of Jews is as old as the Testament itself.