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Dietrich poster at heart of Nazi restitution battle

Latest update : 2008-03-05

The son of a German Jew whose vast graphic art collection was seized by the Nazis in 1937 has lodged a court claim for the return of a Marlene Dietrich poster exposed at a Berlin museum.

The son of a German Jew whose vast graphic art collection was seized by the Nazis has lodged a court claim for the return of a single piece, an iconic Marlene Dietrich film poster, his lawyer said Tuesday.
   
Peter Sachs, 70, is suing the German Historical Museum for the restitution of a work depicting Dietrich as the "Blonde Venus", the siren she played opposite Cary Grant in the 1932 film of the same name.
   
Lawyer Matthias Druba said Sachs had asked for only one of some 4,000 pieces of poster art his father Hans Sachs bought before the Holocaust because under German law, court costs were determined by the value of the contested goods.
   
"If we were to lay claim to the whole collection, the legal costs would come to 30,000 or 40,000 euros (45,500 or 60,700 dollars), and Mr Sachs does not have that kind of money," Druba said.
   
He said if the Berlin regional court found that Sachs was the rightful owner of the Dietrich poster, the state museum would probably return all of the other works because the ruling would set a precedent.
   
The court bid is the latest development in a tug of war between Sachs, a retired airline pilot living in the US state of Florida, and the German Historical Museum in eastern Berlin.
   
Druba said Sachs wanted the place the collection in another museum where it would be exhibited as his father would have wished.
   
"This will not be the German Historical Museum, not after the way they have behaved," the lawyer said.
   
"On top of that, the museum is using the posters only as an illustration of German history and not treating them as works of art in their own right."
   
Hans Sachs, a dentist, was considered the leading poster collector in Germany in the early 20th century and credited with raising the stature of commercial art.
   
He was sent to a concentration camp in 1938 but released a few weeks later, and fled with his family first to London, then to New York. He died in 1974.
   
Sachs learnt in the mid-1960s from a collector friend that part of his collection, including works by Kaethe Kollwitz and Max Klinger, was languishing in a cellar in the German Historical Museum, which at the time was behind the Iron Curtain.
   
This came after Sachs had accepted 225,000 marks, the equivalent of more than half a million euros today, in compensation from West German authorities in 1961.
   
The museum argues that his son therefore has no further right to the works.
   
A spokesman has told AFP that when Sachs learnt a few years after accepting the pay-out that a third of the collection had survived, he decided not to demand restitution.
   
"He said he was happy they were found, and he had been paid, so the matter was history," the spokesman said.
   
But Sachs argues that his father let the matter rest only because he had no hope of getting East Germany, which refused historical responsibility for Nazi abuses, to return the works.
   
His lawyer said the Nazis "simply took the art" without formally expropriating the collector, meaning that ownership rested with him until his death and then passed to his son.
   
Druba disputed a claim by the museum, cited in the German daily Die Welt, that the posters were unsuited for a permanent exhibition because they were too fragile to be exposed to light for long periods.
   
"This is probably true for any work of art. One could argue that it would be better for the Mona Lisa to be stored away from light, but much depends on the care taken by a museum."
   
Druba said the exact number of posters left in the disputed collection was not known because the museum has not completed an inventory of the works.
   
"Nor do we know what state the posters are in. It would be a relief if the museum could at last complete the task, because we fear that posters could be disappearing," he told AFP.

Date created : 2008-03-05

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