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Nazi-looted Art Must Be Returned

Posted on the 16 March 2012 by Periscope @periscopepost

A German federal court last week made a fair decision on a highly emotional issue, mandating the return of Nazi-looted art to its rightful owners.

Reports on Friday confirmed that after a seven-year legal battle, a German Jewish man, Peter Sachs, won his fight against a Berlin museum for the return of thousands of rare posters stolen from his late father, Hans Sachs, by the Nazi regime in 1938. According to the BBC, Berlin’s Federal Court of Justice found for Peter Sachs, 71, now resident in the US, ruling that to do otherwise would “perpetuate Nazi injustice”.

This case marks the latest stage of an important process in the repatriation of looted art, assisted, hopefully, by the publication since last year of records about seized works of art online by organisations such as the National Archives and the Commission for Looted Art.

The story of the posters
Hans Sachs, a dentist by profession born in 1881, began collecting posters as a student. Before being interned in a concentration camp, he had amassed a collection of up to 12,500 posters, including advertisements for exhibitions, cabarets, films, and political propaganda that reportedly date back to the Weimar period and the Bismarck government.

The posters were seized on the orders of Nazi propaganda chief, Joseph Goebbels, before the elder Sachs escaped to Florida. They became part of the German Historical Museum’s collection after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, having vanished during the turmoil of WWII and the Cold War.

Only 4,529 of the posters have been identified, but German newspaper Deutsche Welle has put the value of the extant collection between €4.5 and €16 million.

Sachs senior had, apparently, accepted monetary compensation in 1961, having assumed that the posters had vanished; he only learned years later that some of the collection had survived in an east Berlin cellar. He died in 1974 without seeing them again, and after unsuccessful attempts to recover them from the Communist authorities who held east Berlin at that time.

The younger Sachs apparently only became aware of the collection in 2005 and immediately commenced legal proceedings in order to obtain their return. After seven years, he succeeded: The German Federal Court overruled the decision of a lower court that Sachs’s action was time barred. Although Hans Sachs accepted monetary compensation, the Karlsruhe court found that the Hans Sachs collection was never sold. This finding worked in favour of his descendants.

What next
The German Historical Museum said in a statement that it “accepts the ruling”. Based on the judgment, the museum’s foundation will meet soon with Sachs “to arrange a rapid and mutually agreed solution of the ownership issues” and to determine who holds the posters, a statement added.

The museum had argued that the collection was “invaluable” for researchers, though only a few of the posters were exhibited at a time. I assume that the museum argued that the collection – as a valuable store of German cultural heritage – should remain in its hands for the wider public benefit. Luckily, it will: Sachs’s lawyer, Matthias Druba, said in a statement that Sachs wanted to “show the poster art to the public”. The objective now, he added, is to find a depository for the posters in museums “where they can really be seen and not hidden away”.

In an email to the Associated Press, Sachs said that he was “deeply touched” and called the action a “vindication” for his father and a “final recognition” for his father.

The right decision
Claims such as this – which demand the return of art looted by the Nazis – are highly-charged and emotive. It is right that they receive proper judicial consideration. It does the German superior court credit that it has not decided this case on a technicality but has taken a fairness-based approach.


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