Looted Nazi Art Again Before Supreme Court In 2004 it was the famous "Woman In Gold" painting by Gustav Klimt. Now it is the Guelph Treasure. Both were owned by Jews and expropriated by the Nazis.
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Looted Nazi Art Again Before Supreme Court

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Looted Nazi Art Again Before Supreme Court

Law

Looted Nazi Art Again Before Supreme Court

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

At the U.S. Supreme Court today, the justices heard arguments about a famous art collection taken by Nazis from its Jewish owners. As NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports, it is not the first time the court has faced such a question.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: In 2004, the court ruled that Maria Altmann, an elderly Jewish refugee living in Los Angeles, could sue the government of Austria in the United States to recover one of the most famous works by Gustav Klimt, "The Woman In Gold," a portrait of her aunt that was appropriated by the Nazis during World War II. She won in the high court, and the Austrian government ultimately returned the painting.

Fast-forward to today, and the justices were hearing another such case, this one brought by Jed Leiber, a record producer and musician in Los Angeles. At the center of the case is the Guelph Treasure, one of the most famous collections of medieval artifacts in existence. It was once owned by Leiber's grandfather and two other Jewish art dealers. It's now on display in a German state museum in Berlin. Jed Leiber.

JED LEIBER: I'd started playing chess as a very young man with my grandfather and realizing that I made a promise to myself that one day I would find everything that was taken from him and have it returned.

TOTENBERG: Ultimately, he would learn that in 1935, the Nazis forced his grandfather and two other owners of the collection to sell for a fraction of its value.

LEIBER: This was purchased by Hermann Goring, perhaps one of the most notorious art thieves of all time, for his pal Adolf Hitler, the monster that killed 6 million people, for a museum. Why would Germany want to defend those?

TOTENBERG: But Leiber's lawyer Nicholas O’Donnell contended that this suit and others like it are specific exceptions under the law because, as he put it...

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NICHOLAS O’DONNELL: The Nazi government set out explicitly to destroy the German Jewish people by taking their property. And Congress has specifically identified the Nazis' looting of art from the Jewish people as genocidal.

TOTENBERG: But justices both liberal and conservative, justices who are Jewish and those who are not, seemed doubtful. Justice Thomas.

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CLARENCE THOMAS: Wouldn't your reading be just that - a radical departure?

TOTENBERG: Justice Breyer said that O'Donnell's argument seemed to have no limit.

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STEPHEN BREYER: I mean, the list goes on and on of what violates international law, and many of them involve property. And if we can bring these kinds of actions here, well, so can these other countries do the same and accuse us. I mean, what about Japanese internment, which involved 30,000 people in World War II who were not American citizens but were of Japanese origin?

TOTENBERG: Justice Alito - is your claim Holocaust-specific? Justice Kagan - your position would mean that Holocaust victims could sue for property deprivations but not for the deaths of their relatives. In an interview, lawyer O'Donnell said that while the Austrian government surprised many after the Altmann case by setting up a commission that has settled with hundreds of heirs of Nazi art theft, Germany's commission has not.

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O’DONNELL: Germany's a much larger country with a much more central role in the events in question - has handled 17.

TOTENBERG: It's not clear what Jed Leiber and the other heirs ultimately want. The collection is valued at $250 million. At the very least, Leiber says he wants an acknowledgement.

LEIBER: The story about how it came to be in that museum is important to me. My grandfather needs to be part of that story and how it was recovered.

TOTENBERG: In the lower court, Leiber won the right to sue. But based on the tone of today's argument, the Supreme Court may not agree.

Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

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