The court turned back a German family's challenge to the U.S. government's taking of the paintings and photographs along with the family's claim for millions of dollars in damages. Had justices intervened, they would have had to consider the rights of non-Americans for recourse against the U.S. government.
Heirs of the late German photographer Heinrich Hoffmann Sr. contend their father was the victim of wartime art pillaging. "The unique aspect of this theft is that the culprit is the United States government," the attorney for Hoffmann heirs, Robert I. White, told the Supreme Court in a filing.
Hitler's watercolors include street scenes and war landscapes painted before and during World War I. U.S. forces discovered them in 1945, not long after Hitler committed suicide, in a German castle where Hoffmann had stored them during the war.
White told the Supreme Court that the seizure of the paintings and about 2.5 million photographs violated the constitutional rights of Hoffmann and his family. The Bush administration had urged justices to turn away the appeal, arguing that the photos Hitler painted in his early years were Nazi art confiscated "in order to de-Nazify Germany."
For nearly 20 years the government has battled in court with Hoffmann relatives and Texas art investor Billy F. Price, who bought rights to the works. A federal judge in Texas ordered the government in 1993 to pay about $10 million in damages and interest for refusing to return the art and photos. That decision was overturned, and the latest litigation involves another appeals court finding that the Army did nothing wrong.
Hoffmann and his son owned the photographs through their photography news service, Hoffmann Presse. The government has contended the works legally belong to the United States under a U.S.-German treaty signed after World War II. "The United States in acquiring those properties, was making quintessential public policy decisions," Solicitor General Theodore Olson wrote in a filing.
Olson also said the Hoffmann relatives have no claim in federal courts. Hoffmann was found guilty at the postwar Nuremberg trials of war profiteering. Olson said Hoffmann was told in 1956, a year before his death, that the only way to get his property back was through "diplomatic channels."
The Army keeps the paintings in government storage in Alexandria, Va. The Supreme Court refused to review a decision against the heirs by the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. There are still other issues to be resolved in the case in lower courts.
The case is Hoffmann v. United States, 01-1111.