The US Supreme Court rejected Wednesday a suit by the heirs of Nazi-era Jewish art dealers for compensation from Germany for a storied collection of medieval art treasures.
The court ruled unanimously that Germany had sovereign immunity in US courts from claims over the Guelph collection of gold crosses, jewels and other religious works from the 11th to the 14th centuries.
But they avoided comment on the merits of the claim that a group of art dealers was illegally forced to sell the collection at cut prices in 1935 to Prussia, then run by Gestapo founder Hermann Goering, as the Nazis increasingly threatened Jews.
The treasure ended up after the war on display in a museum in Berlin, and the heirs of the dealers have sought fuller compensation for the artworks, which they say are worth today more than $250 million.
Germany, the defendant in the case, argued that the dealers were not robbed in the 1935 sale, but simply cut their losses after paying too much for the collection on the eve of the global depression of the early 1930s.
After failing in Germany to win compensation, the dealers' heirs turned to the US courts, which have been supportive of claims for restitution over art taken from Jews by the Nazis in the 1930s and 1940s.
"It was simply not possible in 1935 for any Jewish business, least of all dealers who are in possession of the German national treasure, to get a fair deal with perhaps the greatest, most notorious art thief of all time," Jed Leiber, whose grandfather Saemy Rosenberg was one of the dealers, told AFP in December.
However strong that claim may have been, the nine justices ruled that Germany was protected by the US Foreign Sovereign Immunity Act (FSIA), which insulates foreign governments from lawsuits in US courts, with only a few exceptions.
Even in the case of "monstrous" abuse, the justices said in their opinion, "We have previously rejected efforts to insert modern human rights law into FSIA exceptions ill-suited to the task."
US law, they noted, governs the United States "but does not rule the world," and the Guelph case essentially involved a transaction by Germans in Germany.
For example, they added, Washington would not receive well a German court's involvement in human rights claims by Americans against the US government.
They also noted that Germany has a functioning system for redress of Nazi-era claims which already provided around $100 billion in compensation to Holocaust survivors.