Germany’s Highest Court rules that German museum must return art work stolen by the Nazis

On Friday 16th March the Highest Court in Germany, the Federal Court of Justice in Karlsruhe ruled that the German Historical Museum must return to Peter Sachs, a US Citizen, thousands of rare posters that had been stolen from his father by the Nazis in 1938.

Peter Sach’s late father Hans Sach’s was born in 1881. He had been a dentist by profession and by 1905 had become the leading private collector of poster art in Germany. He built a collection of 12,500 works. The posters were rare and included works by Jules Cheret, Lucian Bernard and Toulouse Lautrec. Sachs had become an authority on the subject, launched the publication “Das Plakat” and founded a poster society.

Sach’s collection had come to the attention of Joseph Goebbels, the Nazis’s Propaganda Minister. The Gestapo seized Sachs’s posters from his home in the summer of 1938 on the orders Goebbels who wanted the posters for himself and to place them in a wing of a museum that focused on “corporate” art.

After seizing his posters, Hans Sachs was arrested during Kristallnacht (the pogrom against the Jews 9th November 1938) and sent to Sachsenhausen concentration camp. After two weeks, Sachs’s wife arranged his release and they then fled to America with their 14 month old son, Peter.

Hans Sach’s had tried to locate his art work. However he believed it had been lost or destroyed. He was compensated in 1961 by the West German Government for 225, 000 deutschmarks.

However many of the posters had survived and had remained in Communist East Germany for decades. The posters entered the German Historical Museum’s collection in 1990 after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany.

His son, Peter Sachs only discovered the existence of the art work in 2005 and then started a seven year legal battle to reclaim his father’s property, (4,259 posters were identified as being his late father’s property.) The value of the poster art is estimated to be between 4.5 million and 16 million Euros.

The lower Courts had held that the property belonged to Peter Sachs. The case was transferred to the Highest Court in Germany.

The Higher Court upheld this decision. The Court observed that whilst Peter Sachs had not filed a claim for restitution of the posters within time for such a claim under post-war restitution regulations, it was the spirit of the law that was in Sach’s favour.

The Judges declared that to not return the posters “would perpetuate Nazi injustice” and “this cannot be reconciled with the purpose of the Allied restitution provisions, which were to protect the rights of victims.”

Sach’s lawyer Matthias Druba had commented that his client hoped to find a place where he could show the poster collection to a wider audience.

The German Government have indicated that this ruling could open the flood gates for those who have already been compensated for lost art works, to bring fresh restitution claims.

It will be interesting to see if there are any changes to the law or fresh legal arguments mounted in order to resist future claims of this nature.