Federal court to rule over art confiscated by Nazis | Arts | DW | 12.03.2012
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Federal court to rule over art confiscated by Nazis

The Federal Court of Justice is to decide on March 16 whether the German Historical Museum in Berlin must hand over a poster collection to the son of Hans Sachs - a collector forced to flee the country by the Nazis.

One poster from the collection

The posters are considered works of art

Hans Sachs - a dentist, academic and art collector - was a wealthy, well-situated member of the bourgeoisie. In Berlin, the city of chorus lines, coffee houses and movie theaters, he indulged in a passion springing from his youth: collecting posters.

Back then, posters were more than just short-lived, commercial graphics. They were artworks. Renowned artists such as Henry van de Velde, Karl Hofer and Edmund Edel painted and drew up their designs for advertisements for new brands of coffee, theater productions, circus shows, dance hall events, casino entertainment or for the new medium of film. The posters were popular and quickly became prized collector items - and they have remained so ever since.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the collection Hans Sachs had started began to draw attention. He rapidly made himself an expert in the field, founding the "Association of Poster Friends" and a magazine in which he published articles he wrote under at least three different pseudonyms. His collection then quickly expanded, and included posters from France, Hungary, the US and England. By 1926, prominent Berlin local Sachs owned 12,300 posters. But his collecting was brought to an abrupt end in the 1930s.

Nazi seizure

The National Socialists had come power in 1933. While Sachs was able to practice as a dentist and exhibit posters for a while, he was ultimately denounced as a Jew as the persecution machinery rolled into motion: Interrogation by the Gestapo in 1937, house searches, imprisonment in 1938 and lastly deportation to a concentration camp in Sachsenhausen.

One poster from the collection

Designs were creative and realistic

But Sachs found good fortune in a desperate situation. After a few weeks or imprisionment, Sachs was released and received permission to emigrate to the US with his family. His valuable collection of posters, however, remained in Germany. The collection had been seized by the Ministry of Propaganda after Sachs refused to sell it to the National Socialist regime, with propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels planning to incorporate the works into an existing museum collection.

The new beginning for the German Jew in New York was tough. Sachs was permitted to travel to the US with just 10 German marks, little furniture and a few dental instruments. Already in his 60s, he was forced to complete exams at American universities in order to practice as a dentist once again. Meanwhile, as the war raged in Europe, Sachs' precious collection of posters in Europe seemed to have disappeared.

Meandering collection

"The history of the whereabouts of the Hans Sachs poster collection is complicated," said Dieter Vorsteher-Seiler, director of collections and vice president of the German Historical Museum in Berlin. But, experts have learned more and more over the years, he said, and have been able to trace the dispersal of part of the collection to different storage locations following World War II. Other works were discovered in the basement of the then Museum of German History in the former German Democratic Republic.

Following the war, however, Hans Sachs believed his collection to be lost forever and accordingly applied for compensation, receiving 225,000 German Marks from the German government in 1961. A few years later, he was informed of the discovery of parts of his collection in the GDR, and offered to help with the archiving and registration of the works. With the Cold War in high gear, he was refused.

Sachs died in 1974, never to see the collection with his own eyes again. The remains of the collection were brought together in the German Historical Museum in Berlin after the reunification of Germany in 1990. "We have a total of 40,000 posters in house," explained the head of collections Vorsteher-Seiler. "We have searched for posters from the Sachs collection in 300 drawers and found 4,700 objects which have been identified and registered. They are housed here in large filing cabinets." The posters were exhibited under the title "Art - Commerce - Visions" in 1992.

Legal battles

In 2006, after the deadline for the registration of rights to restitution had already passed, Sach's son Peter - living in the US - applied for the collection to be returned to his ownership, launching a civil action case. That would follow would be a lengthy legal battle which has continued over the years through different levels of jurisdiction up to the Federal Court of Justice - Germany's highest appellate court for criminal and civil cases - and which will only now be coming to an end.

One poster from the collection

Selling products through art

The family's lawyers have argued that Hans Sachs was never formally dispossessed, meaning he never legally lost ownership of the collection. Yet the collection is now in the hands of the German Historical Museum. Gunnar Schnabel, a Berlin lawyer and expert on stolen art, finds the situation "absurd": It is the divergence of property and ownership law. He believes the argument concerning the failure to meet the right to restitution deadline is invalid. He also believes that the fact Sachs received compensation for the loss of the collection should have no bearing on the issue of its return to the family.

But, says Schnabel, there is also a moral aspect to the case: "An injustice remains an injustice," he said. "We can't lie about the facts." He pointed out that Hans Sachs was persecuted by the Gestapo and was kept in a concentration camp before he could flee to the US with 10 Marks in his pocket. He was forced to leave his collection behind. "The collection was forcibly seized from him, but he never lost ownership. In light of these circumstances, the property should be returned to his family without condition," Schnabel said. "That is the moral duty of Germany, who should not back out using legal sophistry."

Setting a precedent

"It is a dreadful situation for us too," said the director of collections, Vorsteher-Seiler, from the German Historical Museum, which would like to retain the collection. But if the Federal Court of Justice decides in favor of Sachs' son on March 16, the museum will respond to the ruling "with cool professionalism," Vorsteher-Seiler said. "Speaking as a private person, I would find such a decision a real pity," said the director. He believes it would be the end of an era of cultural and collecting history, adding that "it's already painful."

Lawyer Schnabel, for his part, is quite certain the Federal Court of Justice will decide in favor of the return of the collection to the Sachs family. "There are numerous other cases similar to this, where Germany or German museums are in possession of art works without having legal ownership," Schnabel said. "A positive decision from the Court would be a signal for all those rightful owners to launch new attempts to obtain such works."

The Sachs poster collection could be - as many fear - dissolved and sold off piece-by-piece. Sotheby's and other big auction houses are already well aware of the treasures which could soon enter the market. After all, the poster collection is estimated to be worth around 4.5 million euros (nearly $6 million).

Author: Cornelia Rabitz / hw
Editor: Louisa Schaefer

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