Thomas Hemer journeyed from Nevada to Leipzig, the city where he was born 88 years ago, to fight for the legacy of his grandfather, an Egyptologist of Jewish origin forced to leave Germany after the Nazis came to power.
In 1937, Georg Steindorff sold his collection of ancient artifacts to the department of Leipzig University that he led. Hemer, his grandson, wants to stop the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany from taking them from the university museum, after a Berlin court ruled on May 26 that the sale was conducted under duress and thus invalid.
The 16-year legal battle pitted Leipzig University and Hemer against the Claims Conference, which filed a claim for the collection after German unification in 1990. In a restitution case that confounds conventions, the Claims Conference is now legal owner of the antiquities, overriding the wishes of the heir. Hemer, who served as a witness, said he’s “astonished.”
Losing the collection “would destroy an institute that my grandfather cherished,” Hemer said in an interview at the museum in Leipzig. Though alert and fit for his age, he walks with a stick and wears a hearing aid. “My grandfather was the institute,” Hemer said. “He was this museum.”
Steindorff led archaeological excursions to Egypt between 1903 and 1931. He complemented his own finds with objects that he purchased for his teaching practice and integrated into the university collection.
The 163 antiquities include a 4,000-year-old Nagada bowl, ancient clay figures, early Islamic ceramics and Greek and Roman objects. He sold those acquisitions to the university for 8,000 Reichsmarks (about $3,200 at the time) in 1937 and they have been there ever since, in the Egyptology museum he founded, known since 2008 as the Egyptian Museum Georg Steindorff, according to the court.
Before the sale, Steindorff had calculated the value of the individual objects at 10,260 Reichsmarks. The court said the discrepancy is a sign that the sale was not voluntary.
“In the case of sales by those persecuted during the Nazi era there is a legal assumption that these were a result of persecution and therefore liable for compensation,” the administrative court said in a press release after the ruling.
“There is some evidence that, before 1933, Steindorff intended to give his collection to the university,” the court said. “Yet in 1937 he wanted to sell it. Therefore we can’t rule out that the sale was under duress.”
Steindorff remained in Germany until March 1939. He managed to obtain a passport through connections and left for the U.S. via Bremen. He died in 1951 at the age of 90.
The Claims Conference, which describes its mission as “securing a measure of justice for Jewish victims of Nazi persecution,” also has a legal remit to recover property confiscated from Jews before World War II in eastern Germany — in cases where no heirs have stepped forward to stake a claim. According to its website, the group has used more than $1 billion of revenue from such claims to fund social, educational and research programs.
“No Steindorff heirs have come to us,” Gregory Schneider, the executive vice president of the Jewish Claims Conference, said by telephone from New York. “We didn’t know about the grandson until now. That is something we can work out separately. What is important here is that a German court has recognized that this is a forced sale.”
Hemer says he never filed a claim because he wanted the collection to stay in the university’s ownership. Leipzig University disputes the Claims Conference’s statement that it had no knowledge of Hemer’s existence.
According to a copy of the letter provided by Leipzig University, the German Federal Office for Central Services and Unresolved Property Issues wrote to the university in June 2007 saying it had written to the Claims Conference requesting it to withdraw its claim because the legal heir wanted the collection to stay at the university. The letter said the office had received no answer.
A year earlier, the same office contacted Hemer asking for information about the circumstances of the transfer of Steindorff’s collection to the university.
The Federal Office for Central Services and Unresolved Property Issues had promised to inform the Jewish Claims Conference about Hemer’s position, which was unequivocal.
“I am amazed that a claim for ‘restitution’ has been filed,” he wrote in an e-mail to the office on May 13, 2007. “I never solicited the assistance of the lawyers or the JCC. I saw no need for restitution, or recovery of lost property. My only concern is the preservation of my grandfather’s intention. The museum was his life’s work, and it should be protected.”
Hemer left Leipzig as a child with his mother, who initially took him to California. He now lives near Lake Tahoe. A 2006 trip to Leipzig was his first since World War II, when he was stationed in Luxembourg.
Dietrich Raue, the curator of the museum, said no one has so far put a contemporary value on the collection. “We never planned to sell these objects,” he said. “They are here for the benefit of the students.”
“I could accept it if Thomas Hemer said he wanted the collection back,” Raue said. “I would give it to him tomorrow. But he doesn’t. Steindorff built up this institute and wanted his antiquities to benefit the students. This is what saddens us.”
“All we can do is wait for the Claims Conference to tell us how much they want,” Raue said. “Then we’ll know whether we have a chance of keeping the collection here or not.”
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