Restitution Request “Welfenschatz”

News from 01/13/2014

The 42 objects of the so-called Welfenschatz (Guelph Treasure) in the Kunstgewerbemuseum (Museum of Decorative Arts) have been the subject of a restitution request since April 2008. The Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz (Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation) has carried out extensive research since then. Its evaluation of the historical facts differs from that of the applicants, who have access to the full research results of the Foundation. In contrast to the roughly 50 claims for restitution that the Foundation has decided since 1999 an agreement was not reached with the applicants in this case. The Foundation then did not wish to deny the opposing party’s request to refer the matter to the “Beratende Kommission” (Advisory Commission). Of the many restitution cases that the Foundation has handled, this is the only one to date for which it has taken this course of action.

Portable Altar, Guelph Treasure
© bpk / Kunstgewerbemuseum, SMB / J. Liepe

The Welfenschatz

What is today known as the “Welfenschatz”, a collection of relics from the former Collegiate Church of St. Blaise in Brunswick (today, the Brunswick Cathedral), grew into one of the most signification German treasuries of the Church through numerous donations over several centuries in the Middle Ages. In 1671, it became the property of the Guelph dynasty, which sold it in 1929, then consisting of 82 objects, to a dealer syndicate. From this syndicate, 42 works were bought by the Prussian State in June 1935, via the Dresdner Bank, for the Schlossmuseum, today’s Kunstgewerbemuseum of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (National Museums in Berlin) . As the Kunstgewerbemuseum is currently closed for renovation, the Welfenschatz is on display in the Bode-Museum.

The part of the Welfenschatz held in the Kunstgewerbemuseum now comprises 44 works of treasure art from the 11th to the15th Century. Thus, it is the largest German church treasure owned by a public art collection.

The Foundation’s Dealing with Restitution Requests

The Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz has been engaged actively and responsibly since the 1990s in the search for Nazi-confiscated art. Since 1999, it has worked on more than 50 individual restitution requests and has been able to reach a variety of just and fair solutions with legitimate claimants. It has restituted more than 350 works of art and more than 1000 books.

The federal government, the states, and the organizations representing German municipalities together have adapted the “Washington Principles” to respond to the circumstances of the Federal Republic of Germany, and issued a “Common Declaration” and “Guidelines”. The Foundation invariably adheres to each of these documents, which set the benchmark for the Foundation’s work in this field. They provide the indispensable basis for confronting and taking responsibility for the injustices of National Socialism, including the confiscations of art and art collections, for which the Foundation seeks to make amends where possible.

Conclusions Based on Extensive Scientific Research

The Foundation has researched and examined intensively the circumstances of the purchase of the Welfenschatz in 1935. It has conducted extensive scientific research that has brought to light a wealth of facts. As a result of this work, the Foundation has concluded that the heirs’ claim for restitution of the Welfenschatz lacks merit under the principles and guidelines set forth in the “Gemeinsame Erklärung” and the “Guidelines”. Although the sellers (art dealers Goldschmidt, Hackenbroch, Rosenberg and Rosenbaum) were Jewish citizens, some of whom were resident in Germany at the time of the sale and some of whom lived abroad, the sale of the Welfenschatz was not a forced sale resulting from Nazi persecution.

This conclusion, which the Foundation reached after careful consideration with appropriate sensitivity to the important moral and historical considerations, reflects the special circumstances of a rare and isolated case. The Foundation is confident that its decision withstands the appropriately stringent requirements under the “Guidelines” of the “Gemeinsame Erklärung”.

From the point of view of the Foundation, the following documented historical facts prove that the sale of the Welfenschatz was not the result of Nazi persecution:

  • The purchase price paid was fair and appropriate. The art dealer's syndicate had acquired the treasure, consisting of 82 pieces, on 5 October, 1929 for 7.5 million Reichsmark, for the purpose of reselling quickly at a profit. Due to the onset of the economic crisis that occurred soon thereafter ("Black Friday"), public institutions and other potential buyers were not in a position to consider such a purchase. In spite of intensive efforts by the dealers to sell the collection, in Europe as well as the USA, only about half of the group of objects, 40 pieces, could be sold, for roughly 2.5 million RM. The asking prices that the dealers hoped to realise for the main works of the treasure, which are on exhibit today in Berlin, were considered, even by US-American museums, as inflated and totally unrealistic. At such asking prices, many of the pieces remained unmarketable at that time. As documented in the sellers’ own business records, dated 1934/35, these pieces were valued at no more than 1.6 million RM. By 1933, the State of Prussia was the only prospective buyer for the Welfenschatz. Following protracted and complicated negotiations in the years of 1934/35, the parties reached agreement at a purchase price of 4.25 million RM for the second half of the Welfenschatz (42 pieces). That price was less than the 5 million RM the sellers had initially hoped to obtain but substantially more than the 3.5 million RM the buyer had initially hoped to spend. In the end, the dealers realised a sum total of 6.75 million RM for the whole collection. This amount represented about 90 percent of their own purchase price from 1929, in spite of a worldwide economic crisis. Consequently, the prices paid by Prussia for the acquired pieces, though below the original purchase prices, were not beyond the scope of general economic risk under the circumstances.
  • The sellers received the purchase price at their free disposal. There is documentary evidence that the sellers each received the sums paid and were free to dispose of them as they saw fit. In particular, considerable efforts were made from the buyer’s side to transfer an appropriate portion of the purchase price proportion to those syndicate members who, in 1935, were living outside Germany, in spite of the existing currency regulations. In a noteworthy process, 20 pieces of art from the Berlin museums were selected by the Berlin museums and the sellers by mutual agreement as a substitute for part of the purchase price. It was made possible for the sellers to export these pieces of art and to sell them outside of Germany for their own account.
  • At the time of the sale, the Welfenschatz was not in Germany and thus not exposed to the authority of the German state. Since 1930, it had no longer been located in Germany. At the time of the purchase by Prussia in June 1935, it was in storage in Amsterdam.
  • The whereabouts of the Welfenschatz after 1945 were known. Since the end of the war, the Welfenschatz has always been located in the zones occupied by the western Allied Forces or in the Federal Republic of Germany. From 1963 onwards it has been kept in West Berlin. Since the 1950s, it has always also been displayed publicly. Its history and its exhibition venue in the Kunstgewerbemuseum of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin have been published several times. No restitution request was ever filed by the sellers or their descendants before 2008; in particular, no claims were made within the scope of the allied and German Federal reparation procedures, nor was an application for financial reparation ever filed.

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