London, Wednesday, June 5, 2002
Nazi's heirs lose legal battle over Hitler watercolours
By Rupert Cornwell
THE fate of four watercolour paintings by Adolf Hitler has been decided by the United States Supreme Court 57 years after the founder of the Third Reich met his death. The court decided the American army should be allowed to keep them.
The paintings were brought to America as war booty and have mouldered almost ever since in a storage unit in Alexandria, Virginia. For the past two decades they have been the object of a legal battle, pitting the heirs of the family of Heinrich Hoffmann -- a leading Nazi court photographer who was given the paintings as a present by Hitler in 1936 -- against the Washington government.
Hitler and Hoffmann were good friends -- indeed the Führer is said to have met his mistress, Eva Braun, at Hoffmann's Berlin studio. During the war, Hoffmann stored the pictures with his collection of 2.5 million photographs in a German castle, where they were discovered by victorious US troops in 1945. The photographs went as evidence to the Nuremberg trials, where Hoffmann was convicted of wartime profiteering. The paintings were then quietly dispatched to the Pentagon vaults near Washington. Artistically they are of scant merit, said by those who have seen them to depict street scenes and war landscapes. But as the hilarious 1983 saga of the fake Hitler diaries shows, any artefact carrying the signature "A. Hitler" has a curiosity value beyond price.
Hoffmann died in 1957, and his son sought the return of both the paintings and the photographs. He was told to do so through "diplomatic channels", but failed to make much progress. In the meantime, a Texas collector called Billy F Price had bought part of the rights to the paintings, and in 1983 filed the first of several claims on behalf of himself and Hoffmann's heirs. As the case worked its way through the courts, a federal judge in Texas in 1993 ordered the government to pay $10m in damages for refusing to give the objects back. That verdict was overturned by a federal appeals court, which ruled that the paintings belonged to the US army under a post-war treaty. Robert White, Hoffmann's attorney, told the Supreme Court this week: "The unique aspect of this theft is that the culprit is the US government." But Theodore Olson, the solicitor general, insisted that the seizure of the art work was "a quintessential public policy decision", and part of the de-Nazification of Germany.
The nine high court justices agreed with Mr Olson -- and in doing so enriched America's public collections with four watercolours by the 20th century's most infamous artist.
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