Ever since a community of heirs staked its claim for works of art owned by the Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz (Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation) in 2008, the Guelph Treasure (the ‘Welfenschatz’) has advanced to become the most prominent collection of medieval art in Germany. Ancestors of these heirs, who were leading Jewish art dealers in the early 20th century, were allegedly forced to sell the treasure in 1935 to the Nazi Regime as a result of persecution, for less than its true value. What exactly is to be understood by the term ‘Guelph Treasure’, what works of art does it include and what changes of ownership really took place in the course of the centuries? The Guelph Treasure is a mirror of German history with its ups and downs over a period of almost 1,000 years. We would like to tell you something about the background to this crime story in this blog.
The Guelph Treasure is a collection of medieval reliquaries that originally came from the Church of St. Blaise in Brunswick (Braunschweig). It largely comprises items in gold dating from between the 11th and 15th centuries. As these exquisite reliquaries were closely associated with the House of Welf (or Guelph) they were given the name the ‘Guelph Treasure’ in the 19th century.

The tradition of venerating physical remains as well as material objects once in the possession of saints and Christian martyrs dates back to the early days of Christianity. These so-called reliquaries, rumoured to have redeeming effects, were much sought-after. At the Second Council of Nicaea in 787 it was deemed that every altar, including every portable altar, was to house a reliquary. This led to a lively trade in reliquaries and the high demand resulted in many forgeries. One prime example are splinters from the True Cross. So many redeeming pieces of wood cropped up that, in the 16th century, the scholar Erasmus of Rotterdam felt driven to utter his mocking remark that one could build an entire ship from all the splinters of the Cross.

The very beginning

But back to the history of the Guelph Treasure: Together with her husband Count Liudolf of Brunswick (d. 1038), Countess Gertrude (d. 1077), a member of the Brunonid noble family, had the collegiate church of St. Blaise built not far from Dankwarderode Castle in 1030. St. Blaise was equipped with choice altar furniture and exquisite reliquaries. These formed the basis of the Guelph Treasure that included the so-called Gertrude and Liudolf Crosses, a portable altar and an arm reliquary of St. Blaise, the patron saint of the church. Under the Welfs, who succeeded to the rule of Saxony through inheritance, the so-called Guelph Cross was added later to the precious collection of reliquaries. Created in the 11th century, most probably in a goldsmith’s workshop in Upper Italy, it has remained the best-known and most emblematic item of the treasure to this day.

In 1172, the Welf Henry the Lion (c. 1129/30–1195) set off on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land during which he visited Constantinople and Jerusalem. Henry was received like a king and showered with exquisite reliquaries, including the arms of several apostles. The ownership of reliquaries of the apostles guaranteed one’s position in the direct apostolic line of succession. This degree of esteem explains why ‘apostle arms’ were so highly regarded among the reliquaries that Henry the Lion donated to St. Blaise in 1173.

Upon his return the duke gave the artistically encased holy gifts to St. Blaise Church, now Brunswick Cathedral, that was rebuilt from 1273 onwards. The famous Cupola Reliquary in Berlin was created for a reliquary from his donation. It is reputed to hold the skull of Saint Gregory of Nazianzus.

Before his death in 1218, Henry’s son Otto IV (1175/76–1218) ordered that all reliquaries in the family’s possession be transferred to St. Blaise Church. The oldest known inventory of the St. Blaise reliquary treasure dates from 1482. It lists 140 items holding reliquaries.

The Reformation in Brunswick

From 1528 onwards the Reformation held sway in Brunswick and the reliquary cult was met with increased condemnation and mockery. In 1542 the collegiate foundation and chapter of St. Blaise were made Protestant. The church treasury lost its redeeming-historical significance; its material value was now of greater importance. Ultimately the treasure passed from Duke Anton Ulrich (1633–1714) to his cousin Duke Johann Friedrich (1625–1679) and ended up in the palace church in Hanover that was destroyed in World War II. As such, it became a princely treasure that belonged solely to the Hanoverian line of the House of Welf in the Duchy of Brunswick and Lüneburg.

The kingdom of Hanover

When Hanover was occupied by French troops in 1803 the collection was sent to England where it would be safe thanks to the personal union between Great Britain and Hanover (1714–1837). The Guelph Treasure returned to Hanover in 1862 to mark the opening of the ‘Königliches Welfenmuseum’, founded by Georg V of Hanover (1819–1878). The precious sacred objects were documented in detail in the catalogue ‘Das Königliche Welf-Museum zu Hanover’ published in 1863. Just a few years later, the fate of the Welfs changed again. Hanover, that had been made a kingdom in 1814, sided with Austria in the Austro-Prussian War (1866) against Prussia. The Habsburgs lost the war and Prussia annexed Hanover. In 1866 its independence became a thing of the past and it was integrated into the territories of Prussia as a province. The ‘Reliquary Chamber’ and also the ducal estates, the works of art and the Ducal Chapter were promised to King George V as private property and entailed estate of the royal house in 1867. The king left Germany and went into exile in Austria with the Guelph Treasure in his luggage. Given on loan to the Österreichisches Museum für Kunst und Industrie, the public was granted unrestricted access for the first time in 1869. After the death of his father, Duke Ernst August II of Brunswick-Lüneburg and Duke of Cumberland (1845–1923) had a new family seat, Cumberland Castle, built between 1882 and 1886 in Gmunden on Traunsee. The treasure was also taken to Cumberland Castle. The City of Hanover attempted in vain to win back the treasure as a loan of great historic importance for the Provinzial-Museum in Hanover.

From Hanover to Cumberland Castle and back again

In 1913 the last grand royal wedding to be held before World War I marked the alliance between Prince Ernst August III and Princess Victoria Luise of Prussia (1892–1980). The conflict that had been simmering for decades since the Austro-Prussian War between the Welfs and the Hohenzollerns was put aside. The young couple moved to Hanover and the treasure taken back home again. After the war the Weimar Constitution, that came into effect in 1919, abolished the privileges of the nobility. The age of the monarchy had come to an end. Ernst August and his family once again went into exile in Austria, to Cumberland Castle. This time the Guelph Treasure was transferred to Switzerland and deposited in a bank until 1921, before being returned to Cumberland.

An export permit is required

In 1923 the Federal Monuments Office in Vienna receives a request from the House of Welf as to whether the export of the Guelph Treasure could in principle be granted. In 1918, shortly after the end of World War I, an export ban came into effect in Austria for works of art in an attempt to prevent the radical sale of cultural assets in a starving country. This also included the treasures owned by the House of Hanover in Cumberland Castle. Austria saw the export of the Guelph Treasure critically; nevertheless an agreement was finally made following the involvement of the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Finance and a joint report drafted that made it possible for a repatriation to Germany. The reasoning behind this decision was that the objects were historically more closely asssociated with the Welf family and Germany than with Austria. Austria did, however, have a strong historical interest in the treasure of reliquaries. For this reason, after negotiations had been concluded in 1925, the wish was expressed that the Guelph Treasure remain and a pre-emptive right agreed. In 1927 Duke Ernst-August III had the Guelph Treasure transferred to a bank in Switzerland for safekeeping and put it up for sale. Quite apart from the loss of numerous privileges and the loss of income, the head of the family had to meet high financial obligations. These included, first and foremost, the maintenance of properties on the ducal estates as well as pension liabilities.

The sale of the Guelph Treasure by the House of Welf

The House of Welf offered the precious collection of objects to the German Reich and the City of Hanover. Private initiatives were also founded to secure the treasure for Germany. The difficult situation as to the state finances and the general economic climate, however, thwarted its acquisition. In 1929 concrete purchase discussions began with a consortium of dealers, comprising probably eight people in total. Of these, three parties appeared on the public stage. These were the renowned Jewish art companies J. & S. Goldschmidt (Julius Falk Goldschmidt), I. Rosenbaum (Isaak Rosenbaum, Samy Rosenberg) and Z. M. Hackenbroch (Zacharias Max Hackenbroch). As the whereabouts of the consortial agreement of 1929 is not known, it has not been possible to date to identify either the names of the other members of the consortium who acted as silent partners or their precise roles within the consortium.

Its marketing through a consortium of dealers

82 objects were available for sale. The duke hoped to generate 24 million Reichsmarks. However, the treasure was sold to the consortium for just 7.5 million Reichsmarks on 5 October, barely two weeks before ‘Black Friday’. As a result of the global economic crisis that ensued, the consortium’s sales efforts at a national and international level were sluggish. A sales exhibition was held between 1 August and 15 September 1930 at the Städelsches Kunstinstitut in Frankfurt with the support of the well-known and globally networked director Georg Swarzenski (1876–1957), accompanied by a magnificent catalogue. This was followed by a show in Berlin from 1 until 12 October. However, only 18 smaller objects were sold in total.

Immediately after the exhibitions in the German Reich, the 64 remaining items were shipped to the USA in October and November 1930. Swarzenski, who continued to support the sales efforts, saw the chance of success however as very low. In December 1930 he wrote that it was doubtful, bearing the economic situation of the time in mind, that the sales success the consortium hoped to achieve could be generated and, were that to be the case, it should be attempted to sell the treasure within Germany once again. That the treasure had been offered for sale in America in vain was considered terribly damaging. In fact, only 22 items had actually been sold in the USA and, once again, these did not include the principal objects of the ecclesiastic treasure such as the Cupola Reliquary or the Guelph Cross. The Cleveland Museum of Art was successful in acquiring the Gertrudis portable altar and the two Gertrudis crosses, thanks to private benefactors. Once again, no museum had been able to afford the most valuable works. Negotiations with the Metropolitan Museum in New York and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London failed due to the dealers’ asking prices.

The seizure of power and a renewed interest in the Guelph Treasure

After its return to Europe the Guelph Treasure was put into storage in Amsterdam. The consortium stopped its sales efforts. The global economic situation was desolate. Evidence of purchasing and sales attempts first reappear in November 1933. At the insistence of the director, Swarzenski, the mayor of the City of Frankfurt Friedrich Krebs (1894–1961) approached the Reich Chancellery informing it that the largest part of the Guelph Treasure had not yet been sold but “according to a report by an expert, its sale would be possible for around one third of is value at that time”. The offer was turned down. From 1934 owwards, however, members of the board of management at the Dresdner Bank contacted the consortium on behalf of the state of Prussia with the aim of acquiring the Guelph Treasure for the best possible price. The cultural-political ambitions of the Nazis and of the Prussian Minister-President, Göring, in particular, to secure these national cultural assets can be seen as the reason why the German Reich suddenly appeared as a potential buyer after having repeatedly turned it down. The negotiation partners were the member of the board of management Samuel Ritscher, on the purchaser’s side, the member of the consortium Alfons Heilbronner (with a 2.5% share in the treasure) as broker and Samy Rosenberg who was alrealy living in London, on the sellers’ side.

After negotiations that went on for seventeen months an agreement was finally reached in 1935. The Guelph Treasure changed hands for 4.25 million Reichsmarks (RM), of which 3,371.875 RM were transferred onto Hackenbroch’s account on 15 July 1935. 778,125 RM were paid into a frozen account. The foreign members of the consortium could convert this amount into works of art in museums in Berlin. As a result they suffered no foreign currency loss but, instead, bore the risk of marketing the items that were part of this exchange. Alfons Heilbronner received a commission of 100,000 RM. The payment of these amounts has been confirmed. The selected works of art from Berlin’s museums were already en route for Great Britain by 16 July. The address given was Samy Rosenberg’s branch office in London. The consignment comprised two objects from the Gemäldegalerie, six objects from the Department of Christian Era Sculpture and twelve objects from the Schlossmuseum. An exquisite Islamic ‘silk animal carpet’ as well as a ‘Saint Mary Magdalene’ by the painter Carlo Crivelli are exceptionally noteworthy. As a token of his gratitude Rosenberg sent an important glass chalice from Antiquity to Berlin. The treasure, on the other hand, was handed over to the director of the Berlin Schlossmuseum in Amsterdam. The former ecclesiatical treasure was dispatched to Berlin on 17, 18 and 19 July 1935. There is incidentally no concrete evidence of the participating consortium partners in the sales transaction of the Guelph Treasure either.

Following its acquisition by the Schlossmuseum, located in Berlin Palace, the Guelph Treasure was put on display. After the outbreak of war it was taken to the Friedrichshain ‘flak’ anti-aircraft gun tower that was one of the largest bunkers in Berlin. During the final weeks of the war the Guelph Treasure was removed from the bombed capital and taken to the Merkers salt mine near Kaiseroda in Thuringia, hundreds of kilometres away. It was here that items from major holdings in Berlin’s museums, including the Bust of Nefertiti, were found alongside a large part of Germany’s financial reserves in the form of banknotes, coins and gold ingots. American soldiers had soon discovered the hiding place and taken their spectacular find to Frankfurt and then on to Wiesbaden. In fact, according to the terms of the Yalta agreement regarding occupation zones, the Americans should have handed the find to the Soviets. But that’s another story …

After the war the Guelph Treasure was first exhibited in Brunswick in Dankwarderode Castle. In 1957 it became the property of the recently founded Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz (Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation) and returned to Berlin upon the completion of the Kunstgewerbemuseum (Museum of Applied Arts) in 1963.

Restitution claims

In 2008 heirs of the art dealers who represented the former consortium publicly asserted their claim for the Guelph Treasure. They stated that it was a forced sale as a result of persecution. The claimants are a grandson and a great-nephew of the sellers at that time: Isaak Rosenbaum, Zacharias Hackenbroch and Samy Rosenberg. This came as a surprise to the Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz (SPK). In compensation proceedings related to the former consortium members Rosenbaum and Rosenberg after the war, it was never argued that Prussia had not abided by the terms of the agreement in 1935. The SPK dismissed the claim. In 2012 both parties contacted the ‘Ad­vi­so­ry Com­mis­sion on the re­turn of cul­tur­al prop­er­ty seized as a re­sult of Nazi per­se­cu­tion, es­pe­cial­ly Jew­ish prop­er­ty’, the so-called Limbach Commission, in this matter. In November 2013, after a lengthy examination, the Commission judged that the Guelph Treasure should remain with the SPK. The Commission justified its decision on the fact that the disposal of the Guelph Treasure was not regarded as a forced sale in the face of Nazi persecution. Moreover, the sales price was appropriate. The conditions for restitution in accordance with the so-called Washington Principles were, therefore, not given. The international agreement defined in the Washington Principles of 1998 stipulates that, in cases of Nazi looted art, ‘fair and just’ solutions are to be found with the heirs in each instance, every case always being examined in its own right. It is also possible that there is no case for a reverse transaction. The lawyers of the disappointed heirs considered the facts to speak very much in favour of a sale made as a result of Nazi persecution. In their words it was a “forced, manipulated, power-abusing transaction”. In 2015 the State of Berlin added the Guelph Treasure to the list of cultural property of national significance. As such, it is no longer permittted for the works of art to leave Germany. At around the same time the heirs took the next step and instituted proceedings against Germany and the Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz at a court in America. They felt forced to take the case to a US court as German civil law does not, in their opinion, offer sufficient legal recourse with regard to the redressing of injustice caused by the Nazis.

The basis of the case in the USA is a law dating from 1976, the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA). In specific cases, this can override the fundamental doctrine of sovereign immunity according to international law. In normal circumstances no country may be indicted in the court of another country. The exception stipulated in the FSIA is with regard to any expropriation that goes against international law.In 2017 a court in Washington D.C. opened the case entered by representatives of the heirs to check if the expropriation was against international law and whether Germany could lose its sovereign immunity in this case. After Germany and the Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz faced defeat in the two lower instances – the District Court and the Court of Appeals in Washington – the case of the Guelph Treasure restitution was taken to the Supreme Court, the highest court in the federal judiciary of the United States of America. Germany and the SPK urged for the charge brought against them to be dropped due to the American court’s lack of jurisdiction. The exception stipulated in the FSIA only refers to expropriation in the sense of a foreign state taking away a person’s property. The Frankfurt art dealers, however, who had joined forces to form a consortium in 1929, buying the treasure and then selling it to the Dresdner Bank or the State of Prussia, were German nationals. For this reason, the lawsuit could not be accepted in the USA and had to be handed back to Germany. The lawyers of the heirs to the members of the consortium, however, maintain that the arrangement finally reached after 1935, following protracted negotiations, represents a forced sale, contradicting as such the results of the examination made by the Limbach Commission that both parties had contacted. In order for the American federal jurisdiction to base its claim on the law of 1976, the alleged expropriation had to be stylised as a preparatory action for the genocide of the European Jews, as genocide is also considered an infringement of international law in the case that the perpetrator and the victim are citizens of the same country. Nationality is then considered to be of subordinate importance. In this respect, the heirs of the members of the consortium adopted a two-track approach to their case. The highest court in America did not endorse the view of the claimant. In addition, it noted that accepting such as case would create a precedent: through the circuitous route of the legal protection of property this would mean that all human rights violations in the world could be liable for trial in a court of justice in the United States in future. The lawmakers could not have had this in mind when they drew up the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act.

And now?

The claimant still has the possibility of maintaining that the art dealers, as Jews, were no longer Geman nationals in 1935. In such a case, the alleged expropriation could possibly be considered as a violation of international law and could then be legally fought in the USA. The other possibility is, after such a long legal dispute, for the heirs to accept the Limbach recommendation that the transaction was legally binding.

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