Court orders return of rare art stolen by Nazis from Jewish owner

Sat, Mar 17, 2012, 00:00

JUDGES HAVE ordered the German Historical Museum (DHM) in Berlin to hand over a rare poster and graphics collection worth an estimated €4.5 million and stolen by the Nazis from its Jewish owner in 1938.

A five-year restitution battle ended with a victory for the family of Hans Sachs, a dentist who began collecting posters as a schoolboy.

By the 1930s he had assembled a unique collection blending advertisement, film and cabaret posters by artists from Toulouse-Lautrec to Jule Chéret.

He published a magazine to raise awareness of posters as an art form; his collection attracted the attention of Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, who reportedly ordered it to be seized.

“I can’t describe what this means to me on a personal level,” said Peter Sachs, the collector’s son, in a statement to Bloomberg yesterday. “It feels like vindication for my father, a final recognition of the life he lost and never got back.” Mr Sachs was arrested and sent to a concentration camp in 1938, escaped and fled Germany later that year with his wife and son Peter, then aged 18 months.

Assuming his collection had been destroyed in the wartime bombing of Berlin, Mr Sachs accepted compensation of 225,000 deutschmarks in 1961. Five years later he heard that a poster collection resembling his had turned up in an East Berlin museum. His efforts to pursue the matter were stonewalled by the East German authorities and Mr Sachs died in 1974 without seeing his collection again.

After unification the surviving collection, comprising 4,259 works, was transferred to the ownership of the DHM. In the 1990s it presented the works in an exhibition dedicated to Mr Sachs and said that efforts to contact the Sachs heirs failed.

The museum fought the 2005 restitution application by Peter Sachs, arguing that the deadline for such applications had expired under Nazi looted art guidelines.

Mr Sachs, a retired pilot living in Florida, said he made the application as soon as he heard of the collection’s existence.

In its final ruling the federal administrative court in Karlsruhe found that Mr Sachs had never lost ownership of the collection and that leaving the posters with the museum “would perpetuate the Nazi injustice”.

Mr Sachs has offered to repay the 1961 compensation and put the collection on public display. The museum said yesterday it accepted the ruling and would meet with Mr Sachs to discuss a “speedy conclusion” of the dispute.