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Supreme Court Says Germany Can't Be Sued In Nazi-Era Art Case

In this 2014 picture, the medieval portable altar of Eilbertus, a part of the Guelph Treasure, is displayed at the Bode Museum in Berlin. The precious collection of medieval Christian art was at the center of a complicated ownership dispute at the U.S. Supreme Court. The court sided with Germany on Wednesday.
In this 2014 picture, the medieval portable altar of Eilbertus, a part of the Guelph Treasure, is displayed at the Bode Museum in Berlin. The precious collection of medieval Christian art was at the center of a complicated ownership dispute at the U.S. Supreme Court. The court sided with Germany on Wednesday.

The U.S. Supreme Court sided with Germany on Wednesday in a dispute over artworks obtained by the Nazis from German Jewish collectors in 1935. The court unanimously rejected a lower court ruling that had allowed the heirs of the onetime owners to proceed with their claim that the sale had been coerced.

At the center of the case is the Guelph Treasure, one of the most famous collections of medieval artifacts in existence. Now valued at $250 million, it has long been on display in a German state museum in Berlin.

Jed Leiber, one of the heirs, claims his grandfather and the other two owners of the collection were forced by the Nazis to sell for a fraction of the collection's value.

"This was purchased by Hermann Goering, perhaps one of the most notorious art thieves of all time, for his pal Adolf Hitler, the monster who killed 6 million people," Leiber said in an interview last December.

In 2015, the heirs sued in the U.S. for return of the collection, but Germany, backed by the Trump administration, sought to block the lawsuit and on Wednesday prevailed.

Writing for the unanimous court, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that in a case like this one involving international law as well as domestic law, "We do not look to the law of genocide ... we look to the law of property." And under both U.S. law and international law, a taking of property can be "wrongful" only where a country deprives an "alien," a foreigner, of property.

Wednesday's decision involved the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, which establishes the rules of the road for how the Unites States treats other countries in litigation. As Roberts put it, the FSIA has long recognized that U.S. "law governs domestically but does not rule the world." And he pointedly observed that the U.S. might well balk too if some of its historically bad behavior — say slavery or the incarceration of Japanese Americans in World War II — were punished by courts in other countries.

In a statement, Hermann Parzinger, the president of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, which owns the collection, welcomed the decision, saying it was his organization's "long-held belief that this case should not be heard in U.S. court."

The justices, however, did not put a complete end to the Nazi art case. Instead, they sent it back to the lower court for arguments as to whether the Nazis' unique criminal treatment of German Jews put this claim outside the norm because the Jewish victims were no longer considered German citizens.

Parzinger, in his statement, said: "We look forward to presenting robust legal arguments for the dismissal of this lawsuit."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: February 3, 2021 at 12:00 AM EST
An earlier version of this story misspelled Jed Leiber's last name as Lieber.