The Art Newspaper has a useful update on the current state of the Guelph Treasure dispute. The Supreme Court has asked the Executive Branch, specifically the Solicitor General of the United States for an opinion on the case, in order to aid in its decision over whether or not to hear an appeal of the case from the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Here’s a quick background on the dispute. The Welfenschatz, or Guelph trove, a collection of 42 objects dating from the 11th-15th centuries is currently in the possession of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation and has been claimed by successors of art dealers who were fleeing the holocaust. These objects were originally housed in the cathedral in Braunschweig, owned by the House of Guelph. During the First World War, the House of Guelph lost reign over Braunschweig and in the 1920s the pieces were sold to a consortium of Frankfurt art dealers, including 82 items in 1929. Later in 1935 the Prussian state, led by Hermann Goering, bought the remaining pieces of the hoard in what the claimaints allege was a “genocidal taking”. In 2014, a German government commission found that the transaction was not a forced sale.
The claimants then brought suit in the United States. The current possessors, the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation have defended that action on the grounds that as a Foreign Government, they are immune from suit in the United States under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act. Claimants have argued that the actions of the Prussian government fall under one of the exceptions to that law, that the actions of the Prussians was a violation of International law, namely genocide.
For some further helpful background from the perspective of the claimants, Nicholas O’Donnell, counsel for the claimants, has an excellent blog where he often updates this dispute.
Michael Steinhardt has been involved in over 1,000 antiquities transactions, and he is not eager to discuss the details of any of them. That’s my key takeaway from a recent Magistrate Judge’s order which may throw a good deal of daylight on many of those 1,000 transactions through pre-trial discovery. The suit involves the Republic of Turkey, represented by Herrick, Feinstein LLP, in the ongoing lawsuit between the Republic of Turkey, Christies, and Steinhardt involving the Guennol Stargazer. That could have big implications for future potential repatriation suits involving material which passed through Steinhardt and dealers he was associated with. If he has been involved in 1,000 antiquities transactions, we could be looking at a large amount of new information coming to light. It may also lead to more actions by the Manhattan District Attorney‘s office like the one earlier this year.
First, a few observations about Mr. Steinhardt. He is a billionaire. He was one of the first hedge fund managers. He has generously funded many cultural exchanges, including the Jewish Birthright movement which pays for Jews to return to Israel. He also has a gallery named after him at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and serves on Christie’s advisory board. He has also been subject to many repatriation and forfeiture lawsuits, two notable ones including an ancient Greek gold Phiale from Sicily, and an Etruscan tomb fragment.
His dispute with Turkey involves a small sculpture which dates to the third millennium BCE, and was sold for a reported $14.5 million at Christie’s Auction House in New York on April 28, 2017. Soon after the Republic of Turkey brought suit against the auction house and the consignor, Michael Steinhardt.
At the time the ministry of Culture of Turkey published a full-page letter in the New York Times demanding repatriation of objects which have been illegally removed from that country.
Turkey brought suit in advance of the contemplated sale on April 27, 2017. Turkey sought to block any potential sale, and was denied that request. However District Judge Nathan did agree to an accession by Christie’s which would delay for 60 days the receipt of any funds by the winning bidder, and to retain possession of the object. Soon after Turkey amended its complaint on May 26, 2017 re-asserting claims that the Figure had been removed from Turkey at some point prior to 1966 in violation of Turkey’s National Patrimony Law. In the complaint, the lead attorney Lawrence Kaye argued that Turkey has had since as far back as 1906 national ownership of all undiscovered antiquities in Turkey. The only known published provenance for the Figure from Christies was the following:
Alastair Bradley and Edith Martin, New York, acquired 1966 or prior; thence by descent. with the Merrin Gallery, New York, acquired from the above, 1993. Acquired by the current owner from the above, 16 August 1993.
That current owner was Michael Steinhardt. Which brings us to the recent ruling by Magistrate Judge Aaron. The parties at this point, Christie’s and Steinhardt on one side; and Turkey on the other, are presently engaged in the pretrial discovery process. This involves Turkey asking for as much information as possible about how Steinhardt acquired his antiquities. What was his diligence before every acquisition? What if any concerns were raised? Steinhardt is justifiably reticent to hand over all of that information. As Magistrate Judge Aaron summarizes in his decision, Turkey “argues that Steinhardt’s ‘habits and practices’ with respect to antiquities transactions even after his 1993 acquisition of the Idol are relevant.” But the ultimate discovery was limited to “Steinhardt’s antiquities transactions up to and including December 31, 2006”, which was limited in two important ways. First, any transactions by Steinhardt in Anatolian antiquities; and also any antiquities transactions by Steinhardt which involved John J. Klejman. Klejman was according to Thomas Hoving, one of his favorite “dealer-smugglers“. Klejman had also handled the series of objects known as the Lydian Hoard, which was sold to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1966, and which was returned to Turkey in 1993.
The pre-trial discovery process in America can be a long carefully argued process with each party arguing about how much or little information should be conveyed to the other parties in a lawsuit. Though Mr. Steinhardt has demonstrated a willingness to aggressively litigate to defend his possession or in this case sale proceeds of antiquities, he has not always been successful. At the very least this recent ruling highlights just how much information may be discoverable, how many transactions he was engaged in, and raises an important point moving forward. If this material is not transmitted back to nations of origin, or if a nation of origin cannot be ascertained, what Museum would want this collection of objects with incomplete histories? Wouldn’t we have a much more interesting story to tell about the Guennol Stargazer if we know which tomb it came from? David Gill has speculated that the Guennol Stargazer may have been found with a similar Stargazer which has been acquired by Shelby White.
Sam Hardy, The antiquity of the Guennol Stargazer – legal, looted, fake?, conflict antiquities (Mar. 0, 2018), https://conflictantiquities.wordpress.com/2018/03/09/turkey-guennol-stargazer-legal-looted-fake/.
Alessandro Chechi, a post-doctoral researcher at the Art-Law Centre in Geneva has published a thoughtful discussion on human rights and restitution. From the abstract:
The legal and political discourse over cultural heritage is today dominated by a number of sophisticated conceptions. First, the term cultural heritage is used to focus attention on the manifestations that do not assume tangible form but that represent evidence of the way of life and thought of a particular society. Such a shift of interest witnesses the perception of culture as a human centred, socially constructed legacy belonging to all mankind. Secondly, cultural heritage can be seen as part of the physical public space that we normally call the ‘environment’ or the ‘landscape’. This approach takes into account the interactive link of such heritage with the life of people inhabiting it. Thirdly, cultural heritage may also be seen as a powerful tool to build a sense of nation. It is a fact that, since the 19th century, nations have used representative cultural treasures as means for supporting or legitimising claims to self-determination and independence or for creating a cohesive national identity. Fourthly, cultural heritage today can be seen as the object of individual as well as collective rights. In this sense, cultural heritage becomes an important dimension of human rights.
“Any transaction in 1935, where the sellers on the one side were Jews and the buyer on the other side was the Nazi state itself is by definition a void transaction”.
So argues Nicholas O’Donnell, an attorney representing descendants of the Jewish art dealers who sold a collection of medieval artworks known as the “Guelph” or “Welfenschatz” Treasure, allegedly under duress and threat of persecution. The complaint for the two heirs was filed in U.S. District Court in Washington D.C. to recover yesterday afternoon. The objects were part of the treasury of the Braunschweig cathedral and were used to store and display relics. The claimants allege that a group of Jewish art dealers were forced to sell the objects in 1935 to the German state of Prussia.
One unfortuante aspect here is that the German commission charged with resolving the claims of Nazi-era claimants was unable to achieve a satisfactory result for the claimants and the German government. One of the likely issues in this dispute will be one the timelinesss of this suit, whether a court will examine the circumstances surrounding an alleged forced sale nearly 80 years after it took place. The complaint alleges that the objects were sold under persecution for 4.15 million Reichsmarks (RM). If we do some rough back-of-the-envelope calculations, the exchange rate was 2.45 RM for $1. So that means the objects were sold for just shy of $1.7 million in 1935 dollars, which be nearly $28 million today. Considering the treasure may be worth as much as $226m, the German State seems to have received a pretty good bargain. The legal question will be whether that sale was under duress.