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Ruling over Nazi-era art sale comes at a cost

Oskar Reinhart left his large art collection to the Swiss government; it is still housed in his original residence, known as "am Römerholz" Keystone

More than a year after the case was closed, new numbers show that a lawsuit in US courts over a drawing by Vincent Van Gogh sold to a Swiss museum during the Nazi era cost Switzerland’s government CHF1.47 million ($1.6 million) to resolve.

This content was published on November 15, 2013 - 17:39
swissinfo.ch and agencies

Margarete Mauthner, a German art collector who was Jewish, sold the drawing “View of Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer” to the Winterthur-based collector Oskar Reinhart in 1933. In 2009, her grandson sued the Swiss government, which had since taken over Reinhart’s collection, for the rights to the art work in a US District Court.

Mauthner’s grandson and his legal team argued that Reinhart had put pressure on his grandmother to sell the work at a low price, knowing the threats she faced under the Nazi occupation. In addition, they claimed that Mauthner needed the money from the sale of the drawing to flee the Nazis and was therefore forced to sell.

The Swiss government rejected those charges and said Reinhart had bought the work at a fair market price.

In the end, the US District Court in the Southern District of New York said it was unable to rule in the case and threw it out, meaning that the work remains on display in the Oskar Reinhart Collection in Winterthur.

A Swiss government press release announcing the resolution of the trial in February 2012 stated, "It was established that the drawing is not considered looted art in terms of the Washington Conference Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art (1998). The enquiry further determined that US Courts lacked jurisdiction to decide the case."

Setting a precedent?

The significant fees incurred by the Swiss government in settling the case have been attributed to a difference in the Swiss and American legal systems. In Switzerland, the losing party in a case must generally pay the winner’s legal fees; in the US, each party is responsible for paying his or her own fees.

In revealing the legal costs on Friday, the Federal Office of Culture defended the money it spent on the case, citing it was a “significant trial that could set a precedent” for how cases related to art sales from the Nazi era are handled and resolved in future. For that reason, the Swiss government sought specialised attorneys from both Switzerland and the US to argue its case.

The culture office also pointed out that lawyers’ services in the US “are very expensive compared to in Switzerland”.

Yves Fischer, the director of the culture office, deems it unlikely that the case will be re-opened in Switzerland, especially since American courts are considered among the most likely to restore art pieces to their original owners in such cases.  

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