Will the DC Circuit Quash the Nazi Art Case?

By William Vogeler, Esq. on May 07, 2018 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

German relics have made their way to a federal appeals court, and we're not talking about old lawyers.

The Guelph Treasure, dating back to the 11th Century, is a collection of medieval art that ended up in the hands of Nazi Germany. Jewish art dealers sold it to the government in 1935, right after Adolf Hitler rose to power.

Their descendants sued to reclaim the treasure, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia is thinking about it. According to reports, this is a battle they just might win.

Sovereign Immunity

Jonathan Freiman, representing the German government, was caught off guard at oral arguments. He said the plaintiffs' ancestors were paid millions for the treasure.

Even if they didn't get full value, Freiman argued, the law allows lawsuits against foreign states in limited circumstances. Under the Foreign Sovereign Immunity Act, he said, plaintiffs may only recover "property taken in violation of international law."

However, Courthouse News reported the judges were troubled by Freiman's argument. He suggested the art sale and the acts of the Nazis were different.

"That seems to me to be turning a blind eye to what was taking place in Nazi Germany," said Judge Thomas Griffith.

Statue of Limitations

Germany's lawyer also said U.S. foreign policy directs such claims through international procedures. Citing the Holocaust Expropriated Art Recovery Act, Judge David Tatel said U.S. courts are open for Nazi art claims.

"Why would Congress extend statutes of limitations just like this if it thought litigation like this was contrary to U.S. foreign policy?" Tatel asked.

Nicholas O'Donnell, the plaintiffs' attorney, said they would have no hope in a German court. The trial court said the case should stay in the United States.

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