In 1935, not long after Adolf Hitler rose to power, Jewish art dealers sold a major collection of medieval treasure to the state of Prussia in Germany. The collection of gold and jewels known as the Welfenschatz contains pieces that date back some 800 years; it's considered Germany's biggest batch of church treasure, and it's worth some $226 million. The heirs to the art dealers say it was unfairly sold to the state, and they want it back. A 2008 request was unsuccessful, the Wall Street Journal reports. Now, Brit Alan Philipp and American Gerald Stiebel have filed a US lawsuit against Germany and one of its museums, the AP reports. "Any transaction in 1935 where the sellers on the one side were Jews and the buyer on the other side was the Nazi state itself is by definition a void transaction," says a lawyer.
German law invalidates all sales of Jewish art between 1933 and 1945, which the country says were conducted under pressure, the Journal notes. But the country says the law doesn't apply to the Welfenschatz, which it says went for a fair price; lawyers for Philipp and Stiebel disagree. The Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, which is in charge of museums in Berlin, says the sale wasn't forced, and an official German commission recently agreed with the foundation. The foundation points out that in 1935, the collection was in the Netherlands, not Germany. Some owners, however, did live in Germany. And the confusion doesn't stop there: Berlin has made the Welfenschatz a national treasure, so the German culture minister would have to approve their transfer outside the country, the AP notes.