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Supreme Court rules against heirs in Guelph Treasure case

Supreme Court rules against heirs in Guelph Treasure case
The heirs of Jewish art dealers said their grandparents were coerced into selling the Guelph Treasure for one-third its value at the beginning of the Holocaust. File Photo by Stephanie Pilick/EPA

Feb. 3 (UPI) -- The Supreme Court on Wednesday ruled against Jewish heirs to a collection of medieval artifacts known as the Guelph Treasure who say their grandparents were forced to sell to the Nazis.

The unanimous ruling means the heirs will be unable to continue to sue the German government over those artifacts in U.S. courts.

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The heirs -- Jed Leiber and Alan Philipp, both of the United States, and Gerald Stiebel of Britain -- sued the German government in 2015, seeking the return of more than 40 items, some dating to the 11th century, valued at a combined $276 million.

They said their grandparents, art dealers in Frankfurt, Germany, formed a consortium in 1929 to purchase the items and after the Nazis rose to power, were forced to sell them under coercion to the state of Prussia for one-third their value.

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Prussia at the time was ruled by Adolf Hitler's second-in-command, Hermann Goering. The plaintiffs' allegation that Goering later presented the Guelph Treasure to Hitler as a gift has been disputed by researchers from the German government.

The treasure, known in German as the Welfenschatz, is currently held by the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation -- a federal body known in Germany by the acronym SPK -- and is on display at the Museum of Decorative Arts in Berlin.

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The plaintiffs initially argued for the return of the items to the German government under the Return of Cultural Property Seized as a Result of Nazi Persecution. The German government researched the claims and said that the 1935 sale of the artifacts was made at a fair price and not under duress.

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The plaintiffs said the allegedly forced sale of the items in the early days of the Holocaust violated international law because ultimately 6 million Jews were killed as part of a genocide.

The German government said it can't be sued under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act because a government's taking of its own nationals' property isn't unlawful according to the international law.

Supreme Court Justice John Roberts said the question is one of property law, not genocide.

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"We do not look to the law of genocide to determine if we have jurisdiction over the heirs' common law property claims. We look to the law of property," he wrote.

As such, he said, the suit can't be brought in U.S. courts.

The SPK welcomed the court's 9-0 ruling.

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"It is SPK's long-held belief that this case should not be heard in U.S. court," SPK President Hermann Parzinger said.

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"This ruling vacates the prior rejection of SPK's effort seeking the dismissal of the 2015 lawsuit over the Welfenschatz, and directs the lower court to reconsider SPK's motion to dismiss. We look forward to presenting robust legal arguments for the dismissal of this lawsuit."

Jean Lotus contributed to this report.

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