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

Feb 3, 2021
Originally published on February 3, 2021 5:04 pm

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."

: 2/02/21

An earlier version of this story misspelled Jed Leiber's last name as Lieber.

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The U.S. Supreme Court sided with Germany today. The case centered on a dispute over artworks obtained by the Nazis from German Jewish collectors in 1935. The court unanimously threw out a lower court ruling that had allowed the heirs of the one-time owners to proceed with their claim that the sale had been coerced. NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: At the center of the case is the so-called Guelph treasure, one of the most famous collections of medieval artifacts in existence. It's long been on display in a German state museum in Berlin.

JED LIEBER: This was purchased by Hermann Goering, perhaps one of the most notorious art thieves of all time, for his pal Adolf Hitler, the monster that killed 6 million people.

TOTENBERG: That's Jed Lieber, who claims the Nazis forced his grandfather and the other two owners of the collection to sell for a fraction of the collection's value. In 2015, the heirs sued in the U.S. for return of the collection, but the Republic of Germany sought to block the lawsuit, prevailing for now, at least, in the Supreme Court. Writing for a unanimous court, Chief Justice John Roberts said that in a case like this one, we do not look at 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 when a state deprives an alien, a foreigner, of property.

Today's decision involved the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, which establishes the rules of the road for how the United 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 observed pointedly that the U.S. might well balk if some of its own historically bad behavior - say slavery or the internment of the Japanese in World War II - were punished by courts in other countries.

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

Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.