Chechi on human rights and restitution

Roman ruins with a prophet, by Giovanni Pannini, 1751.
Roman ruins with a prophet, by Giovanni Pannini, 1751.

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.
Chechi, Alessandro. Safeguarding the human rights dimension of cultural heritage through restitution [online]. Human Rights Defender, Vol. 24, No. 2, Jul 2015: 11-12. Availability: <http://search.informit.com.au/documentSummary;dn=376874607084084;res=IELHSS>ISSN: 1039-2637.

Germany sued over Nazi-era Medieval art sale

The 13th-century Dome Reliquary, part of the Welfenschatz or Guelph Treasure, is displayed at the Bode Museum in Berlin
The 13th-century Dome Reliquary, part of the Welfenschatz or Guelph Treasure, is displayed at the Bode Museum in Berlin

“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.

O’Donnell argues in his blog this morning:

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