In October 1935 Hermann Goering presented Adolf Hitler with a “surprise gift” – an extraordinary collection of medieval gold artefacts known as the Guelph Treasure.
Recognized as one of the greatest works of art in the world, the Treasure takes its name from the princely House of Guelph of Brunswick-Lüneburg. It includes jewel-encrusted, gold-laden reliquaries, ornate crucifixes, and portable altars, some of which date back over 1,000 years.
The Guelph Treasure is a collection of medieval church art originally housed in the Cathedral in Brunswick, Germany. It fell into the hands of John Frederick, Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg, in 1671 and remained in the Court Chapel at Hanover until 1803. In 1929 Ernest Augustus, Duke of Brunswick, sold 82 items to a consortium of Jewish art dealers in Frankfurt. Items from the Treasure were exhibited in the United States in 1930–31 when the Cleveland Museum of Art bought nine pieces and more were sold to other museums and private collectors.
In 1934 the remaining 40 pieces in the collection were purchased for 4.25 million Reichsmarks by the Prussian State and displayed in Berlin. That portion of the Guelph Treasure is now exhibited at the Bode Museum.
One extraordinary piece is a Reliquary from the late 12th century that probably originated in Cologne. Made of bronze with gold and silver plating, it stands on a base of oak adorned with walrus tusk. Another piece is a richly ornamented altar cross with precious and semi-precious stones of amethyst, carnelian, chalcedony, labradorite, blue sapphire, and topaz. It was made for the Veltheim ducal family, whose coat of arms executed in enamel decorates the base. The cross contains relics from several saints.
In 2008 a claim for restitution was lodged in Germany by the heirs of the Jewish art dealers who sold the collection in 1934. In March 2014 the Limbach Commission, an advisory body to the German government, concluded that the treasure should not be handed over as the case did not meet the criteria defining a forced sale due to Nazi persecution.
However, in February 2015, the heirs sued Germany and the Bode Museum in order to recover the treasure. Just days earlier, Germany declared the collection a national cultural treasure, which means the art pieces can no longer leave the country without the express permission of the culture minister.
In their suit, the plaintiffs called the 1934 sale a “sham transaction” carried out by the Dresdner Bank acting for Goering and Hitler. They claim the price paid for the collection, 4.25 million Reichsmarks, was at best 35% of its value at the time, although in an era of depression and political upheaval, no one can be quite sure. Doubtless the Nazis were capable of extorting a bargain.
The thorny question of restitution haunts the art world, from the Elgin Marbles claimed by Greece to the hoard bequeathed by Cornelius Gurlitt, son of a Nazi-era art dealer, to the Kunstmuseum Bern in Switzerland. In this case, an agreement signed between Germany and Switzerland saw the museum accepting several hundred works from the collection, while others whose owners have yet to be identified have been left in Germany until their provenance has been traced.
As for the Guelph Treasure, litigation may prove endless, like Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce in Dickens’s novel Bleak House:
“Scores of persons have deliriously found themselves made parties in Jarndyce and Jarndyce, without knowing how or why; whole families have inherited legendary hatreds with the suit. The little plaintiff or defendant, who was promised a new rocking-horse when Jarndyce and Jarndyce should be settled, has grown up, possessed himself of a real horse, and trotted away into the other world. Fair wards of court have faded into mothers and grandmothers; a long procession of Chancellors has come in and gone out; the legion of bills in the suit have been transformed into mere bills of mortality; there are not three Jarndyces left upon the earth perhaps, since old Tom Jarndyce in despair blew his brains out at a coffee-house in Chancery Lane; but Jarndyce and Jarndyce still drags its dreary length before the Court, perennially hopeless.”