Source: The Boston Glove By: Casey Ross
Nicholas O’Donnell said he felt a chill when he began to read the pile of faded documents.
One letter was addressed to Adolf Hitler, urging him to reclaim from four Jewish art dealers a collection of medieval Christian relics known as the Welfenschatz treasure. Other records showed how the Nazis, including the notorious war criminal Hermann Goering, conspired to do exactly that.
Taken together, the documents form the basis of a federal lawsuit filed this year by O’Donnell, a Boston attorney, to get the treasure back 80 years after its purchase by the Third Reich.
The suit, which alleges the transaction was made under duress for a cut-rate price, has reverberated throughout the art world and prompted a vehement denial from German authorities, who say the sale was thoroughly reviewed by an advisory panel and found to be valid.
“I am astonished by this step,” Hermann Parzinger, head of the German government foundation that controls the treasure, said days after the lawsuit was filed in Washington, D.C. “I am confident that any court ruling on the merits would reach the same conclusion that we and the advisory commission have reached.”
Isaak Rosenbaum (top) and partners (from left) Zacharias Hackenbroch, Julius Goldschmidt, and Saemy Rosenberg sold the Welfenschatz treasure to the Nazis in 1935 after they were unable to get a better offer.
O’Donnell’s suit seeks to force the German government to return the $250 million treasure as restitution for alleged persecution under the Nazi regime. He said his clients are fighting for an acknowledgment that their ancestors were robbed of the treasure.
“To prevail in this case is to have established the real story, and that’s what motivates them,” said O’Donnell, a partner at the law firm Sullivan & Worcester. “The idea that these folks just sort of dumped this collection and got paid properly for it is outrageous.”
Descendants of the art dealers asked O’Donnell to take up the case last year. As head of his firm’s art law practice, O’Donnell had written a blog post about the rejection of their claims by a German commission. After a few meetings, he agreed to join their effort to reclaim it.
The Welfenschatz treasure consists of dozens of gold and bejeweled relics that date to the Holy Roman Empire. It was acquired by the Nazis in 1935 and presented to Hitler as a birthday gift at a celebration in Berlin.
In correspondence, the Nazis had showed particular interest in the treasure as part of their quest to establish a distinct German identity that excluded Jews.
The art dealers, a consortium of three firms based in Frankfurt, had purchased the treasure in 1929 as an investment and began trying to sell it as the Nazis rose to power. About half of the pieces were sold to the Cleveland Museum of Art and others, but the rest remained in their possession when the Nazis organized a boycott of Jewish businesses that quickly reduced the revenue of their firms to nothing, according to the legal complaint.
If successful, the case to recover the treasure could establish a precedent in the effort to reclaim art and other cultural items that changed hands during the Third Reich, especially in the area of forced sales.
JOHN BLANDING/GLOBE STAFF
“The idea that these folks just sort of dumped this collection and got paid properly for it is outrageous,” said Nicholas O’Donnell, seen holding a booklet from a Berlin museum showing what he contends is art that the Nazis stole.
Specialists in provenance research say that cases involving allegations of coerced or manipulated sales are exceedingly difficult to prove.
“Very often, you’re working with very few data points; you may not have much of a paper trail,” said Victoria Reed, director of provenance at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. “These tend to be very complicated, and no two cases are alike.”
Of the hundreds of thousands of looted-art claims made in recent decades, only a tiny fraction have resulted in restitution.
The case portrayed in the film “Woman in Gold,” in which a feisty octogenarian played by Helen Mirren succeeds in a decade-long quest to recover her family’s paintings, is the rare exception.
In the case involving the Welfenshactz treasure, a German panel ruled in 2014 that there was insufficient evidence to prove the sale of the collection was influenced by the Nazis’ persecution.
In response to the US lawsuit, the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation said the price was “fair and appropriate,” given the worldwide economic turmoil that undermined demand for pricey art collections.
O’Donnell’s lawsuit offers a detailed narrative of the years leading up to the sale.
The art dealers — Zacharias Hackenbroch, Isaak Rosenbaum, Saemy Rosenberg, and Julius Goldschmidt — were publicly accused to trying to profit from Germany’s national treasures and branded as enemies of the state, it said. They were also subjected to violence and intimidation under the Nazi regime, according to the complaint.
Correspondence filed as exhibits in the case purports to show that Nazi officials plotted to undermine deals with other potential buyers of the Welfenschatz to force the art dealers to lower their price.
In 1935, during final negotiations over the sale, Rosenberg stayed in a hotel along Potsdamer Platz in Berlin where, according to the complaint, he had a view of Hitler Youth demonstrations and could hear daily chants of “Do not buy from Jews!”
In June of that year, after fruitless efforts to achieve a better deal, the dealers agreed to sell the collection to the Nazis.
A few months later, the Welfenschatz was presented to Hitler.
A Baltimore Sun article used as an exhibit in the lawsuit reported that the ceremony was presided over by Goering.
By then, most of the dealers who owned the Welfenschatz had fled the country. Hackenbroch, the only one who remained in Germany, died two years later.