German High Court Famous Poster Collection Stolen by the Nazis Must Be Returned to Collector's Son

Osen LLC - March 16, 2012


March 16, 2012 (KARLSRHUE, GERMANY): The German High Court (Bundesgerichtshof) issued its written opinion this morning confirming that Peter Sachs is the legal owner of his father’s stolen poster collection and that a German museum must return the collection to him. In a landmark case, the High Court’s ruling restores ownership of one of the largest and most famous poster collections in the world (estimated at approximately 4,200 vintage posters) to Mr. Sachs, the American son of Hans Sachs, the Jewish collector whose life’s work was stolen by the Gestapo in 1938. An appeals court ruled last year that notwithstanding the fact that Mr. Sachs was the owner of his father’s collection and that it had been unlawfully seized by the Nazis, the court lacked authority, under German law, to compel the German Historical Museum in Berlin (“DHM”) to return the poster collection to him. The High Court, in granting Mr. Sachs’ July 2010 petition, agreed to hear the appeal because “of the fundamental importance of the case,” noting that “in cases where restitution claims were impossible to file for factual reasons at the time- as in this case-, the issues of the relationship between restitution law and general civil laws is in need of review and clarification.”


Following the issuance of the High Court’s decision, Mr. Sachs’ American attorney, Cindy T. Schlanger, stated:

We are of course gratified by the Court’s decision today. It is nonetheless regrettable that this case had to travel all the way to the German High Court. Had the German Government honored the Washington Principles that it freely and openly embraced in 1998, Mr. Sachs would have received the justice he was due many years ago.


Informed of the Court’s decision at his home in Nevada, Peter Sachs said:

I can’t describe what this means to me on a personal level. It’s almost like a final gift to my father, a final recognition of the life he lost and never got back. Somewhere, he’s smiling today.


Background of the Litigation


In March 2008, Peter Sachs filed a lawsuit in the civil court (Landgericht) in Berlin, seeking the return of a poster originally owned by his father from the DHM. The lawsuit represented the culmination of an unsuccessful three-year effort by Mr. Sachs to amicably resolve a case involving the theft of what many consider the largest and most significant poster collection in the world -- the Hans Sachs Collection.


In 2005, Mr. Sachs had begun investigating the whereabouts of his father’s long lost collection through the internet and located references to the Museum’s collection of Sachs posters. In order to help him regain his father’s collection, he retained the U.S. law firm of Osen LLC, which specializes in complex transnational litigation. Since 1998, when the German Government adopted the recommendations expressed in the so-called Washington Conference and co-authored the Washington Principles (1998), it has publicly committed itself to the identification of looted cultural assets and the return of Nazi-confiscated art. Based on this stated commitment, Osen LLC attempted to obtain return of the collection without resorting to litigation. Unfortunately, despite the fact that the German Historical Museum is a state-owned institution and the Washington Principles committed Germany to return stolen art – including art found in state museums, archives, and libraries – to its rightful owners, hopes of an amicable settlement were soon dashed when the Museum refused to return the posters to Mr. Sachs.


In view of the impasse, Germany’s Culture Minister, Bernd Neumann, recommended that the parties submit to non-binding arbitration before the Advisory Commission of the German Federal Government (the “Limbach Commission”) to determine if the Museum should return the posters to Mr. Sachs. On January 25, 2007, the Commission issued its decision in favor of the Museum, stating that Hans Sachs always considered the collection to be “a public service” and would therefore have wanted the posters to remain with the Museum.


For obvious reasons, Peter Sachs could not accept the strained reasoning of the Commission. On March 3, 2008, he filed a civil suit against the Museum in the Landgericht Berlin seeking return of a single 1932 poster, The Blonde Venus, featuring Marlene Dietrich. The Museum responded by denying that the poster belonged to the Hans Sachs Collection, and countersuing, asking for the court to determine that none of the posters in the entire collection belonged to Peter Sachs because his father allegedly sold the collection to an “Aryan” banker in 1938. Instead, the Court rejected the counterclaim filed by the Museum and found that Peter Sachs was, in fact, the owner of the collection and was entitled to the return of his father’s posters.


The German Government appealed the Landgericht’s ruling, and the Berlin Appellate Court affirmed that Peter Sachs was the rightful owner of his father’s collection and that it had been unlawfully seized by the Nazis, but also held that he had no civil remedy to compel return of the posters because the restitution law did not contemplate the physical return of property outside of its territorial jurisdiction (the posters had been moved to East Berlin after the war).


In July 2010, Peter Sachs filed a petition with the German High Court seeking leave to appeal the decision of the Berlin Appellate Court. That petition was granted – leading to the High Court’s decision today.