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Heirs to medieval art collection sold to Nazis seek restitution

The heirs to a 11th-century collection of art say their Jewish ancestors were forced to sell some of the collection in 1935 to Nazi agents. They are now seeking restitution in a case before the U.S. Supreme Court. John Yang reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    When Supreme Court justices decide cases, they often rely on a document from the 18th century, the U.S. Constitution.

    As John Yang reports, today, they heard a case about a collection of art dating back to the 11th century.

    The report is part of our ongoing arts and culture series, Canvas.

  • John Yang:

    For musician Jed Leiber, it's a family story that centers around a game of strategy.

  • Jed Leiber:

    For me, the metaphor for my grandfather's story and mine is chess.

  • John Yang:

    As a young boy, he learned the game from his German-born Jewish grandfather, art dealer Saemy Rosenberg.

  • Jed Leiber:

    The lesson was to always play to win, but to play fair, and to think three moves ahead.

  • John Yang:

    Rosenberg, who died in 1971, was a decorated World War I German army officer.

  • Jed Leiber:

    The journey, I was told, began with my grandfather playing chess against an officer who eventually became a member of the Nazi Party.

    The officer one day told my grandfather to take a vacation. And my grandfather he knew exactly what that meant. And he left his home and his gallery and his art, and he took my mother and grandmother and fled to Holland.

  • John Yang:

    Rosenberg and two other Jewish art dealers owned the Guelph Treasure, 82 pieces of Medieval religious art that date back to the 11th century.

    In 1935, 42 of the pieces were sold to agents of Hermann Goering, Hitler's second in command. After inflation, today, the transaction would be worth about $20 million. The dealers' descendants say the sale was coerced.

  • Jed Leiber:

    Goering was building a palace museum for Hitler to impress him. And all of the art dealers and all of the businessmen that were Jewish at the time were traumatized and were persecuted.

    And it's just inconceivable that any fair transaction could have transpired during this period of time.

  • John Yang:

    Today, those pieces are on exhibit in a Berlin museum. Their estimated current value:, at least a quarter of a billion dollars, more than 12 times the value of the sale.

  • Hermann Parzinger:

    Each artwork which was produced before 1945 and came into a museum collection after 1933 is suspicious.

  • John Yang:

    Dr. Hermann Parzinger is president of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation.

  • Hermann Parzinger:

    We have so many facts to prove it was not a forced sale, because the artworks were not even in Germany. They had been located in Amsterdam when the negotiations started.

    Then the purchase price was fair and appropriate. This was a rumor that it was given as a birthday gift from Goering to Hitler.

  • John Yang:

    Over the last two decades, the foundation has investigated more than 50 claims of forced sales in the Nazi era.

  • Hermann Parzinger:

    The facts tell, most of the cases, actually, a story that the cases have been looted in the Nazi period. But, in this case of the Guelph Treasure, it — the facts tell clearly a different story, that this case has no merit.

  • John Yang:

    Today, the case was before the U.S. Supreme Court. The question, whose courts should settle the dispute, America's or Germany's?

    The dealers' descendants argue U.S. law gives U.S. courts jurisdiction.

    Their attorney, Nicholas O'Donnell:

  • Nicholas O’Donnell:

    The Nazi government set out explicitly to destroy the German Jewish people by taking their property. And Congress has specifically identified the Nazis' looting of art from the Jewish people as genocidal.

  • John Yang:

    But the U.S. government says American courts should defer to German authorities. Chief Justice John Roberts pressed Deputy Solicitor General Edwin Kneedler on that point.

  • Chief Justice John Roberts:

    That's the main policy, as I gather, of the United States, is simply to encourage other countries to provide mechanisms for compensation, and, if that fails, then that's just too bad?

  • Edwin Kneedler:

    That is right. The relationship between a state and its own nationals was a matter that other nations had no right to complain about.

  • John Yang:

    Leiber finds them hard to swallow.

  • Jed Leiber:

    I don't believe how we could possibly receive a fair trial any more than my grandfather could have made a fair deal in 1935 with Hermann Goering.

  • John Yang:

    Analysts say the court has tried to make it harder for cases like this to be heard in the United States.

  • Marcia Coyle:

    If we open our doors to their claims, they may open their doors to our claims as well.

  • John Yang:

    Marcia Coyle is chief Washington correspondent for "The National Law Journal."

  • Marcia Coyle:

    And Justice Breyer then was saying, well, we have had some bad acts in our past, and what if claims were brought involving the internment of the Japanese, claims for reparations for slavery? Would that allow those claims to be heard by foreign judges in foreign courts?

  • John Yang:

    Leiber's fought to right what he sees as an 85-year-old wrong for more than a decade.

    As this whole process has been going on, have you been thinking of your grandfather moving chess pieces around the board?

  • Jed Leiber:

    You nailed it. You nailed it.

  • John Yang:

    Playing fair, thinking three moves ahead, and playing to win.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm John Yang.

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