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Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Treasure Trove

The question is, to whom does it belong? To the descendants of the Jewish dealers who were forced to sell it at a reduced price to the Nazi government, or the German state, that contends that fair compensation was paid to the dealers?

In today's news about the Guelph treasure or 'der Welfenschatz' :
"Two claimants to a collection of medieval ecclesiastical treasure valued at $276 million and known as the Guelph Treasure, filed a lawsuit against the German government at a US District Court in Washington on Monday, the Wall Street Journal reports.
The claimants, Alan Philipp and Gerald Stiebel, allege that their Jewish ancestors sold the collection under duress for much less than what it was worth to Hermann Göring, the second-most powerful man in Nazi Germany. Göring later presented the treasure to Adolf Hitler as a gift. Today the treasure is on display in the Bode Museum in Berlin.
However, officials at the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, which manages Berlin's state museums, maintain that the transaction was consensual and that the collection was acquired at a fair market price at the time."
Much more detail about the Guelph treasure is here in a carefully chronicled document of the various pieces that constitute it, along with the provenance and historical background, and the various locations it resided in till c. 1930.

In 1929, Prince Ernest Augustus, created Duke of Brunswick, of the house of Hanover, had a sudden need for hard cold cash. He sold the Guelph treasure, of which the house of Brunswick had been 'guardians' for several centuries, collected from various sources starting in about the 11th century AD, for 7.5 million marks to a consortium of Jewish art dealers.

The art dealers successfully sold assorted pieces from the collection in the years prior to the rise of the Nazis, for around 2.5 million marks. At some point, they were apparently 'forced to sell' the remaining part of the treasure to the Nazi government for an amount of 4.25 million marks c. 1935, estimated by a major auction house to be only about 35% of their value at that time.

It wasn't till 2008 that descendants of the art-dealers came to know about the Guelph treasure pieces, which are now exhibited in the Bode museum in Germany, from statements of their relatives about having had those pieces in their home before they left Germany. And so they investigated it and believe now that they are the rightful owners of the Guelph treasure, and are suing to get it back.

Both sides have marshaled their arguments and seem to have persuasive evidence to back their assertions, as seen in this article. The courts will decide, and the final destination of these artifacts will be determined, in due course.

I'm curious though about whether any descendants of Ernest Augustus of Brunswick could stake a claim to the reliquaries. Or maybe even the Vatican. After all, the chain of custody had to start somewhere with someone being cheated of a fair price for their treasure.


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