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Heirs of German Jewish art dealers await hearing on looted treasure

NEW YORK (JTA) — Heirs of four German-Jewish art dealers are gearing up for a fight over a treasure they say was forced from their families’ hands on orders of Hitler deputy Hermann Goering.

But lawyers for the heirs hope a Sept. 17 hearing in Berlin will obviate the need for legal battles over the fortune in medieval gold artifacts — known as the “Guelph Collection,” or “Welfenschatz.”

The treasures originally were purchased in the 1920s by German Jewish art dealers Zacharias Max Hackenbroch, Isaac Rosenbaum, Saemy Rosenberg and Julius Falk Goldschmidt. Goering himself orchestrated the “sale” of the artifacts to the Prussian state in 1935 for 4.1 million Reichsmarks — far below the market value, said an attorney for the heirs, Mel Urbach of New York.

The collection is estimated to be worth more than $200 million today.

Next week’s hearing on the fate of the collection — currently held by the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation — will be conducted by the Limbach Commission, a German advisory board for Holocaust-related claims.

Urbach told JTA he was confident that the commission under Judge Jutta Limbach would “reach a just decision in the Guelph saga,” based on its “good understanding of history.”

After World War II, the Allied Forces discovered the objects hidden with other looted art in the salt mines of Altaussee in Austria. They were turned over to Germany to be held in trust for the owners. But it was not until 2008 that descendants of the art dealers discovered the collection. Urbach’s Germany-based colleague, Markus Stoetzel, submitted a claim at the time.

“Since then the foundation has stonewalled all attempts to discuss an amicable resolution of this historically important case of looted art,” the attorneys said in a statement on behalf of heirs Jed Leiber of Los Angeles, Gerald Stiebel of New York and Alan Philipp of the United Kingdom.

By “ignor[ing] the moral obligation,” the Prussian foundation was acting against “German law, policy and responsibility,” the attorneys added.

Urbach said he is confident a decades-old wrong will be set right. “I believe the world has come to view the Limbach Commission as the best way to deal with these issues,” he said.

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