Germany's top federal appeals court ruled Friday that a Berlin museum must return to a Jewish man from Florida thousands of rare posters that were seized from his father by the Gestapo, saying that for the institution to keep them would be perpetuating the crimes of the Nazis.
The Federal Court of Justice in Karlsruhe said Peter Sachs, 74, was the rightful owner of the posters, now believed to be worth between €4.5 million and €16 million ($6 million to $21 million), and can demand their return from the German Historical Museum.
The ruling appears to bring to an end some seven years of legal battles to have the vast collection of posters dating back to the late 1800s returned.
'I can't describe what this means to me on a personal level. It feels like vindication for my father, a final recognition of the life he lost and never got back.' —Peter Sachs
"I can't describe what this means to me on a personal level," Peter Sachs, the son of collector Hans Sachs, told The Associated Press in an e-mailed statement after the ruling. "It feels like vindication for my father, a final recognition of the life he lost and never got back."
The case ended up with Karlsruhe court because of the posters unique and tumultuous journey through more than 70 years of German history, in which they were stolen from Sachs by the Nazis' Gestapo, moved on to the possession of communist East Germany, then to the Berlin museum after reunification.
The court acknowledged that Peter Sachs did not file for restitution of the posters by the official deadline for such claims, and that the postwar restitution regulations instituted by the Western Allies could not be specifically applied in his case. But the judges ruled that the spirit of the laws was clearly on Sachs' side.
Not to return the posters "would perpetuate Nazi injustice," the judges wrote.
"This cannot be reconciled with the purpose of the Allied restitution provisions, which were to protect the rights of the victims."
A total of 4,259 posters have been so-far identified as having belonged to Sachs' father. They were among a collection of 12,500 that his father owned, which include advertisements for exhibitions, cabarets, movies and consumer products, as well as political propaganda — all rare, with only small original print runs. It is not clear what happened to the remainder.
The German Historical Museum rarely had more than a handful of the posters on display at any given time, though it had said the collection was an invaluable resource for researchers.
Sachs' attorney in Germany, Matthias Druba, said that his client now hopes that he can find a new home for the collection where they can be displayed to a wider public.
"Hans Sachs wanted to show the poster art to the public, so the objective now is to find a depository for the posters in museums where they can really be seen and not hidden away," Druba told the AP.