Museum might be ordered to return Nazi-seized art

German Historical Museum may be legally compelled to return 4,259 posters to the son of Jewish art collector.

February 13, 2012 00:17
3 minute read.
Nazi display at German Historical Museum

Nazi display at German Historical Museum 390. (photo credit: REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch)

BERLIN – The German Historical Museum may be legally compelled to return 4,259 posters to Peter Sachs, the son of the German Jewish art collector Hans Sachs, whose collection was unlawfully seized by the Nazis on orders from Joseph Goebbels, the head of Hitler’s propaganda ministry.

Matthias Druba, the attorney for Peter Sachs, told The Jerusalem Post on Sunday that he sees “a positive tendency” in the legal process and from an expected March decision from the Federal Administrative Court in Karlsruhe.

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A legal hearing last week in Karlsruhe set the decision date for next month.

The collection of posters – which is owned by the German government and the city of Berlin – has been the subject of heated ongoing litigation since 2007. In contrast to other cases of stolen Jewish property in the Federal Republic, the German Historical Museum and its former president Hans Ottomeyer have waged a bitter legal fight to prevent the art posters from being returned to the family of Sachs in the United States, said Druba.

During the formative stages of the process to block the return of the posters, Ottomeyer used a Nazi-era anti-Semitic term to denigrate Sachs and his family. The term, Verhökern, can loosely be translated as to “hawk” or “huckster,” and was applied to Jewish business practices by the Nazis.

Druba, a lawyer with the prestigious FPS law firm in Berlin, told the Post that a court previously deemed Peter Sachs to be the legal owner. Druba added that this collection of art posters is “his family history.”

The highest decision body for civilian disputes in Karlsruhe may issue its verdict on March 16, or at an earlier date in March. The zig-zag legal battle resulted in a 2010 Berlin appeals court decision, stating Peter Sachs owns the posters but is not within his rights to gain possession of them. The 2010 ruling overruled an earlier decision ordering the return of the posters to Sachs.

The Nazis illegally confiscated what is widely considered the most important collection of posters before the period of 1933, and deported Hans Sachs to a concentration camp in 1938. The German-Jewish dentist, who died in 1974, began collecting posters as an adolescent and his collection reached more than 12,000 items. The Nazis seized the material in 1937.

Sachs was the founder of the magazine Das Plakat, which published posters and organized lectures and events.

After his incarceration in a concentration camp, Sachs managed to flee with his wife and young son, Peter, to the United States.

Sachs’ collection covers a who’s who of the art-poster world, including Jules Cheret, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Ludwig Hohlwein, and totaled 12,500 posters. The collection was at the time the largest assembly of posters in the world. One poster featured in the German Historical Museum shows the film star Marlene Dietrich from the movie Blonde Venus. The Dietrich poster is world famous.

According to German media reports, Hans Sachs suspected that his collection had been destroyed during the war and received $50,000 in 1961. The German Historical Museum estimates the collection is now valued at $ 5.9 million. Druba told the Post that the collection has not been independently appraised. As a result, it is not possible to know the precise value of the collection.

It is unclear why Germany is waging such an intense legal process to deny the Sachs family the right to retrieve the collection.

Peter Sachs, a retired pilot who lives in Sarasota, Florida, started to research his family’s history in 2006 and jump-started the process to retrieve the illegally held collection in Berlin from the German authorities.

Peter was not able to attend last week’s hearing due to illness. Dr. Rudolf Trabold, a spokesman for the German Historical Museum in Berlin, did not immediately answer Post e-mails and telephone calls on Sunday.

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