SARASOTA, Fla. — A Florida man whose father lost almost everything to rampaging mobs of Nazis in the build-up to World War II is pursuing legal action to recover several thousand posters presently stored in a German history museum. Peter Sachs, 67, has hired a New Jersey lawyer who specializes in Holocaust restitution in hopes of forcing the German Historical Museum to turn over the collection of his late father, Hans Sachs, a well-to-do German dentist.
Hans Sachs is said to have amassed 12,500 posters, which he painstakingly cataloged and displayed throughout his home in Berlin. He even published a magazine dedicated to the art form. But like many other German Jews, Sachs was robbed of his possessions on what became known as Kristallnacht — “the night of broken glass” — on Nov. 9, 1938. The Gestapo arrested him and confiscated his poster collection, which he never saw again.
Today, the several thousand posters in the museum’s collection that were taken from Sachs are valued in the millions of dollars, and Sachs’ son wants them back. But the museum is refusing to hand them over. Officials there say Hans Sachs was compensated by the German government for the loss of his collection more than 40 years ago. His son, they contend, is entitled to nothing. The dispute appears headed for court.
“His passion was to make this available to the world, to expose the world to the art form,” Sarasota resident Peter Sachs said of his father, who died in 1974. “I don’t think they should be languishing in a basement, nor do I think the Germans have a right of ownership, considering the circumstances under which they were stolen.”
Peter Sach’s attorney, Gary Osen, won a landmark case last year, getting back land in downtown Berlin for a descendant of the Wertheim department store family, whose fortune was lost under the Nazis. Osen said talks with the German Historical Museum haven’t produced results. The government’s culture ministry recently offered arbitration before a committee that hears stolen art cases, but Osen said he is prepared to sue the museum to force the issue. “Obviously, it’s ironic that the German museum of history doesn’t have much regard for history,” he said.
Hans Josef Sachs was a teenager in the early part of the 20th century when he began collecting the vividly hued posters that, in those days, were a primary medium for the promotion of cultural events and products, and the dissemination of political thought. Sachs was widely credited with elevating commercial graphics to an internationally recognized art form during the first decades of the last century. Propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels intended for the seized collection to be the basis of a museum exhibit on the art of commerce, according to Hans Sachs’ written account of the seizure.
After 17 days in a concentration camp after Kristallnacht, Sachs was freed and fled to America with his wife and son. He was certified to practice dentistry, and the family thrived in Boston and then New York City.
Represented by the United Restitution Organization, a Jewish aid group, Hans Sachs filed a claim and was compensated the equivalent of about $50,000 for the collection in March 1961, according to Rudolf Trabold, a spokesman for the German Historical Museum. And when some of the posters resurfaced in an East German museum a few years later, Sachs did not demand their return, Trabold said, so his heirs have no claim.
Osen is arguing that whatever Hans Sachs was paid doesn’t matter. He notes that the German government has committed to returning property seized by the Nazis to the heirs of the rightful owners, regardless of whether restitution has been paid.
Peter Sachs said his parents never told him part of the collection still existed. It was only last year, as the retired commercial airline pilot was trying to find original copies of his father’s poster art magazine, Das Plakat, that he learned 3,700 pieces were in the German museum. What happened to the rest is unclear, although the museum said some were removed and auctioned in 1981.
Robert Brown, whose Reinhold-Brown Gallery in New York City specializes in poster art, said Hans Sachs’ original collection included lithographs from many of the leading artists of the era. The remaining specimens in the museum are likely worth millions, he said, considering that most poster prints didn’t survive because they were pasted onto walls.
If awarded legal ownership of the posters in question, Sachs said he would display some of them in his home and possibly lend some to museums for exhibition purposes. He and his attorney say they are hoping the German Historical Museum will give them up without involvement of the courts. “For us, it’s inconceivable that they would allow Goebbels to have the last laugh,” Osen said.
— Associated Press, Catherine Saunders-Watson contributed