Osen LLC - February 11, 2009
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 German Historical Museum in Berlin.
The lawsuit represented the culmination of an unsuccessful three year effort by Mr. Sachs and Osen LLC to amicably resolve a case involving the theft of what many consider the largest and most significant poster collections in the world -- the Hans Sachs Collection.
In 2005, Peter Sachs began 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 law firm of Osen LLC.
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 cultural assets and the return of Nazi confiscated art. Based on this commitment, Osen LLC attempted to obtain return of the collection which was unquestionably stolen during the Nazi period 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.
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 to verify if the museum should return the posters to Peter Sachs. The Commission, under Chairman Jutta Limbach, was created pursuant to an agreement between the Federal Commissioner for Cultural and Media Affairs, the Conference of Ministers of Culture of the Länder and the central municipal associations. The arbitration convened on January 25, 2007, at which time Peter Sachs was permitted to address the Commission.
Later that day, the Commission issued its decision in favor of the Museum. In a brief press release, the Commission stated that Hans 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 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. The German system assesses court costs and attorney fees based on the value of the case being decided, and the Museum’s counter-claim therefore dramatically increased the potential costs to Peter Sachs, but he refused to withdraw his lawsuit, instead adding a claim for an additional poster, a magazine advertisement showing a red bulldog called “Dogge” by the artist Thomas Theodor Heine.
The case was argued on January 20, 2009 and a decision was announced on February 10, 2009. The German Civil Court ordered the Museum to return the poster named “Dogge” by Thomas Heine and held that Peter Sachs was: the sole heir of his parents and had become owner of the poster …. His father did not lose ownership in the poster in 1938 either by seizure by the National Socialist rulers or by a planned sale to a banker. Also the conclusion in 1961 of a settlement before a restitution chamber did not lead to the loss of ownership since the poster collection was considered lost at the time. Finally, there also was no renunciation of ownership by Dr. Sachs or by his wife who died later.
For these reasons the Court also rejected the counterclaim filed by the Museum. Yet victory is not yet assured for Peter Sachs. The Museum has indicated that it will appeal the Court’s decision in defiance of the Washington Principles and Germany’s purported committed to return stolen art.
The legal struggle to regain the Hans Sachs Poster Collection is representative of the Firm’s determination to uphold international law and hold governments accountable to their public commitments as well as a willingness to pursue our clients’ rights vigorously and creatively to right historical wrongs.