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The week in art news – US Supreme Court rules for Germany in Guelph Treasure case

5 February 2021

The US Supreme Court has voted unanimously against the bid of the heirs of Jewish art dealers to sue the German government over the Guelph Treasure in the United States. In the opinion written by Chief Justice Roberts, the court found that the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSAI), which prevents other countries from being sued in the United States, still applied to this case. The plaintiffs had claimed that this is an exception in the case of genocide, but the court ruled that there is no exception for property claims made by a country’s own citizens. The case now returns to a lower court, where the question of whether the dealers were indeed citizens or not in 1935, when the items were sold to the state of Prussia, can be considered more fully. A German commission found in 2014 that the sale of the collection of medieval religious art was voluntary; the heirs of the dealers claim that the sale was made under duress.

The German culture minister, Monika Grütters, has announced €1bn more in funding to help cultural organisations in all sectors, including museums, and artists through the pandemic. This follows the bailout of €1bn that was announced last July. Grütters also issued a statement saying: ‘Above all, the second culture billion sends a sign of hope and encouragement to the cultural scene that has been struck in its vital nerve.’

The Dutch government has agreed to return any object taken from a former colony without consent, if the country wants it back and it can be proven that it was taken involuntarily. The policy, adopted this week, follows the recommendation of a report published last October. Ingrid van Engelshoven, minister for culture, education and science in the caretaker government, said, ‘There is no place in the Dutch State Collection for cultural heritage objects that were acquired through theft. If a country wants them back, we will give them back.’ The government will now establish an independent restitution committee to assess requests and advise museums on whether or not an object was acquired without consent.

Some 100 French museum directors and other figures in the art world have signed a petition asking the culture minister to lift Covid-19 restrictions on museums being open. Signatories include Emma Lavigne, president of the Palais de Tokyo (the venue that started the petition), and Chiara Parisi, director of the Centre Pompidou-Metz. French museums and galleries have been closed since the national lockdown imposed in late October and a reopening has been pushed back more than once. The petition recognises the seriousness of the health crisis, but claims that ‘rigorous health protocols’ are now in place: ‘We wish to be able to take care of visitors now. Art, like health, helps to heal the human soul.’ The petition follows a similar appeal from Swiss museums last week.