Supreme Court Unanimously Denies Jewish Heirs’ Effort to Recover Medieval Relics - Fordham Intellectual Property, Media & Entertainment Law Journal
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Supreme Court Unanimously Denies Jewish Heirs’ Effort to Recover Medieval Relics

Supreme Court Unanimously Denies Jewish Heirs’ Effort to Recover Medieval Relics

The Supreme Court unanimously ruled against the heirs of a consortium of German Jewish art dealers who contended the Nazi government coerced their families to sell a collection of medieval relics known as the Welfenschatz.1 The heirs alleged Hermann Goering, Adolf Hitler’s deputy and the Prime Minister of Prussia, coerced the consortium into selling the Welfenschatz to Prussia in 1935 for approximately one-third of their value.2 The treasure, on display in Berlin, is held by Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz (SPK) —the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation.3 The devotional objects are now valued at more than $250 million.4

The case focused on interpreting the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, which states “foreign nations are presumptively immune from the jurisdiction of United States courts.”5 The statute has exceptions. One exceptions provides “a sovereign does not enjoy immunity in any case ‘in which rights in property taken in violation of international law are in issue.’”6 The Supreme Court disagreed, holding the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act does not grant exceptions for claims that property was taken from a nation’s own citizens as part of a human rights violation.7 The opinion’s author, Chief Justice Roberts, wrote:

“[W]e need not decide whether the sale of the consortium’s property was an act of genocide, because the expropriation exception is best read as referencing the international law of expropriation rather than of human rights. We do not look to the law of genocide to determine if we have jurisdiction over the heirs’ common law property claims.”8

The exception instead requires looking at property law.9. Roberts argued embracing the heirs’ argument would allow the exception to become “an all-purpose jurisdictional hook for adjudicating human rights violations.”10

The Supreme Court also noted the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act “places explicit, ‘reticulated boundaries’ on when foreign states can be sued in the US for human rights violations, such as torture or terrorism.”11 Roberts said these explicit and precise restrictions “would be of little consequence if human rights abuses could be packaged as violations of property rights and thereby brought within the expropriation exception to sovereign immunity.”12 The Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act is interpreted to avoid “producing friction in our relations with [other] nations.13 Roberts added he anticipates a German court would act similarly if Americans alleged “they were entitled to hundreds of millions of dollars because of human rights violations committed by the United States Government years ago.”14

The case has been remanded to the district court to reevaluate SPK’s motion to dismiss and to decide whether there are other grounds for adjudicating the dispute.15 During oral arguments, the heirs raised the question whether the Jewish dealers were considered German citizens at the time of the sale.16 “If, as Jews, their German citizenship were considered invalid, then the law of domestic takings would no longer apply.” 17


  1. Fed. Republic of Ger. v. Philipp, No. 19 –351, slip op. at 15–16 (U.S. Feb. 2, 2021); Sarah Cascone, In a Precedent-Setting Move, the Supreme Court Denies Jewish Heirs’ Attempt to Reclaim the $250 Million Guelph Treasure, Artnet (Feb. 3, 2021) https://news.artnet.com/art-world/supreme-court-guelph-treasure-ruling-1941380 [https://perma.cc/C5PS-V383].

  2. Philipp, slip op. at 2

  3. Id.

  4. Cascone, supra note 1.

  5. Philipp, slip op. at 1.

  6. Id.[footnote] The Supreme Court had to determine whether a country’s alleged taking of property from its own citizens falls within this exception. [footnote]Id.[footnote]

    The heirs argued the exception applied “because Germany’s purchase of the Welfenschatz was an act of genocide and the taking therefore violated the international law of genocide.”[footnote]Id. at 3.

  7. Martha Lufkin, US Supreme Court Sides with Germany in Guelph Treasure Case, The Art Newspaper (Feb. 5, 2021) https://www.theartnewspaper.com/news/us-supreme-court-sides-with-germany-in-guelph-treasure-case [https://perma.cc/7RWE-Y267].[/foonote] Considering, the historical and legal background of the statute, the Supreme Court found the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act’s expropriation exception only applied to non-citizens and “does not cover expropriations of property belonging to a country’s own nationals.[footnote]­Philipp, slip op. at 8 (internal citation omitted); see also Lufkin, supra note 9.

  8. Philipp, slip op. at 9.

  9. Id.

  10. Id. at 12.

  11. Lufkin, supra note 9.

  12. Philipp, slip op. at 12.

  13. Id. at 13.

  14. Id.

  15. Cascone, supra note 1.

  16. Id.

  17. Id.

Danielle Stadler

Danielle Stadler is a second-year J.D. candidate at Fordham University School of Law and a staff member of the Intellectual Property, Media & Entertainment Law Journal. She holds a B.A. in Art History and History from Emory University.