Berlin Court Rules for Floridian Seeking Return of Art Posters Seized by Gestapo

By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, February 11, 2009

BERLIN, Feb. 10 -- A court ruled Tuesday in favor of a Florida man seeking the return of his family's collection of rare art posters, worth an estimated $6 million, more than 70 years after the works were confiscated by the Gestapo and then given to a German museum.

Peter Sachs, a retired airline pilot from Sarasota, Fla., had sued the German Historical Museum in Berlin for custody of at least 4,200 rare posters depicting movies, cabaret shows and political propaganda from the early 20th century. The collection had been assembled by his father, Hans Sachs, a Jewish dentist who fled Germany in 1938.

A Berlin court declared Peter Sachs the rightful owner of a poster by the artist Thomas Theodor Heine, featuring a red bulldog in an ad for the German satirical magazine Simplicissimus. In doing so, the court set a precedent that will give Sachs control of about 4,200 other rare posters that the museum acknowledges once belonged to his father.

"Needless to say, I'm delighted," said Sachs, 71, who began researching the whereabouts of his father's lost collection four years ago. "It was my father's passion, and it's my legacy in a way."

Rudolf Trabold, a spokesman for the German Historical Museum, a major institution in the heart of Berlin, declined to comment on the ruling. The museum's collections director, Dieter Vorsteher, told reporters in court that an appeal is likely.

The museum had argued that Hans Sachs had relinquished his rights to the stolen collection when he accepted $50,000 in compensation from the government of West Germany in 1961.

But his son and his lawyers said Hans Sachs had been led to believe that the posters had been destroyed during World War II. He later learned that some of the posters were in the possession of the communist East German government, but he had no way of getting them back before he died in 1974. The collection was turned over to the German Historical Museum in 1990 after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

In 1998, the German government signed a pact known as the Washington Declaration, endorsing guidelines adopted by 43 countries for returning art and other assets seized during the Holocaust. Despite subsequent pledges by the government to give back items confiscated by the Nazis, many German museums have been reluctant.

"There is moral and political damage through this case," said Matthias Druba, a German lawyer representing Peter Sachs. "The German Historical Museum is not a provincial museum but the German historical museum, under the government's authority."

A leading private collector, Hans Sachs amassed a total of 12,500 posters, including works by artists Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Jules Chéret. Several weeks after the Gestapo seized his art, Sachs was arrested on Kristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass, the Nov. 9, 1938, pogrom against Jews. He was detained in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp before he fled Germany with his wife and son, then an infant.

Most of the posters are still missing. Cindy T. Schlanger, a New Jersey attorney for Peter Sachs, said there is evidence many were sold at auction in West Germany.

It also remains unclear how many Sachs posters are in the possession of the German Historical Museum. All but a handful of posters are kept in storage, and the museum has not provided a precise inventory, Peter Sachs said by telephone. He said he hadn't decided what he would do with the collection. "It's a very daunting task," he said. "I would like to see as much of it exposed to the general public as possible."

Special correspondent Shannon Smiley contributed to this report.

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