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$18-billion Holocaust art suit filed against Germany

June 24, 2004|From Reuters

BERLIN — An $18-billion lawsuit was filed against Germany on Wednesday, alleging the country that perpetrated the Holocaust was now retaining stolen artworks from its victims.

U.S. lawyer Edward Fagan said he had filed a suit in a New York district court on behalf of the Assn. of Holocaust Victims for Restitution of Artwork and Masterpieces (AHVRAM) against the German Finance Ministry.

Standing outside the ministry, Fagan told journalists he would present the government with evidence that after World War II it had conspired to store, transport, withhold or dispose of at least 2,000 artworks stolen from Holocaust victims.

"We are here because the theft started here, the expropriations started here, the continued wrongful retention of property started here," Fagan said.

Under Adolf Hitler, Jewish households across occupied Europe were systematically looted for their artworks. AHVRAM's lawyers allege Germany withheld profits made from the works it still holds, including paintings by Monet and Rembrandt.

The group said Germany had retained works on the grounds that it had not found living heirs, but Fagan said in that case the country should sell the works and give the money to Holocaust victims, as has been done in Austria.

The Finance Ministry said in a statement that since the end of World War II, more than 1 million artworks had been returned to their owners or heirs. It said it still owned works insured for a total of $73 million.

The flamboyant Fagan, who became known for his role in promoting Holocaust-related claims and has also stirred controversy with a slew of multibillion-dollar apartheid lawsuits, said the $18-billion claim had a "punishment value."

"What we are saying is: 'Give the paintings back and, by the way, you should be punished for what you did.' Governments should not do this," he said, adding that he would turn over damages to victims of the Nazis.

Fagan said he was hopeful Germany would meet AHVRAM's demands. He indicated he also planned to file suits against Austria, France and the United States for retaining stolen art.

Best known for landing a $1.25-billion settlement from Swiss banks on behalf of Holocaust survivors, Fagan has been accused of raising his clients' expectations to unrealistic levels.

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