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Berlin museums battle Jewish heirs over disputed art

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January 9, 2014: The medieval portable altar of Eilbertus a part of the Welfenschatz, is displayed at the Bode Museum in Berlin. One of Germany’s most precious collections of medieval Christian art is at the center of a complicated ownership dispute between the foundation that oversees the Berlin museums and the heirs of Jewish art dealers who claim their ancestors had to sell the objects to the Nazis under pressure in 1935. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)

It's a medieval treasure trove worth an estimated quarter of a billion dollars, filled with gold crosses studded with gems and intricate silverwork. For years, it's been at the center of a dispute between a Berlin museum foundation and the heirs of Holocaust-era Jewish art dealers.

Now a resolution may be in sight: On Wednesday, a German government-created commission convenes to make a recommendation on who rightfully owns the Welfenschatz -- or Guelph Treasure.

The heirs claim that their ancestors had no choice but to sell the Christian artifacts in 1935 to the Nazi government for less than their value. The foundation that oversees Berlin's museums says that the collectors were not forced to sell the pieces -- arguing among other things that the collection was not even in Germany at the time of its sale.

The collection -- which has been on display in Berlin museums since the early `60s -- is considered the largest German church treasure in public hands. Some experts have estimated the value of the collection of silver and gold crucifixes, altars and other relics at between 180 -200 million euros ($246-$273 million).

The question of the collection's ownership comes at a particularly sensitive time in Germany, following the discovery of more than 1,400 art pieces in the Munich apartment of the son of an art dealer who worked with the Nazis. Descendants of the original Jewish owners of some of those pieces, who now live mostly in Israel and the United States, have criticized the German government for not coming up with a speedy solution on how to either return the art or compensate them for it.

To further heighten tensions surrounding the Guelph Treasure, the Israeli government, in a very unusual move, weighed in on the case by sending a letter to the German government in September making clear it's paying close attention to the commission's recommendation. In the letter, obtained by The Associated Press, Israeli Culture Minister Limor Livnat emphasized "the great importance of this issue to the Jewish people in general, and Holocaust survivors, in Israel and worldwide, in particular."

The commission was created in 2003 specifically to find solutions for disputed restitution cases dating back to the Nazi period where opposing parties are not able to come to an agreement. Its seven members include a former German president, high-ranking former ministers, historians and philosophers. While the panel's recommendations are non-binding, they carry strong moral weight and have almost always been followed in the past. The commission will hear both parties and then come to a conclusion which may be published either Wednesday or in the near future.

The Guelph Treasure, which was assembled over centuries for the Braunschweig Cathedral, includes some of the outstanding goldsmith works of the Middle Ages, among them ornate containers in the form of cathedrals used to store Christian relics. Many of the silver and gold pieces are decorated with jewels and pearls. Some are more than 800 years old.

A consortium of Jewish art dealers from Frankfurt bought the collection, then consisting of 82 pieces, in 1929 from a Braunschweig duke. With the onset of the Great Depression, they were not able to resell all the relics as quickly and profitably as expected; in the early 1930s they still owned half of the collection.

After Adolf Hitler's rise to power in 1933, the rest of the story becomes murky.

What's undisputed is that Jewish owners sold the remaining 42 pieces to the state of Prussia which at the time was governed by top Nazi Hermann Goering.

The lawyers for the heirs told The Associated Press that the art dealers had to sell the treasure significantly below its actual value because they were under massive pressure, exposed daily to the terrors of the Nazi regime.

"These Jewish dealers faced a crisis of a magnitude that we cannot comprehend," said New York attorney Mel Urbach, who represents the heirs with German lawyer Markus Stoetzel. "People, targets of early terror, disappeared for a lot less than owning an art collection. But the Nazis wanted it."

In this case, the lawyers said their research shows Goering personally had a keen interest in acquiring the Guelph Treasure because he had planned to give it to Hitler as a gift.

"These were not just any Nazis, we are talking about Goering and Hitler themselves," Urbach said.

The Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, which oversees the Berlin museums, maintains the price was fair and notes that the collection was in Amsterdam at the time, though several of the owners still lived in Germany. The Germans did not invade the Netherlands until 1940 -- five years after the sale.

The Berlin foundation declined to be interviewed for this article, but sent a written statement explaining it had "conducted extensive scientific research that has brought to light a wealth of facts. As a result of this work, the foundation has concluded that ... the sale of the Welfenschatz was not a forced sale resulting from Nazi persecution."