A 14th-century Hebrew manuscript is the subject of a lawsuit filed this week against the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. The institution has denied claims by heirs of a German-Jewish lawmaker that the museum has “illegal possession” of the religious book, which has been in its collection for nearly seventy years.
This is the first lawsuit against a museum in Israel to recover property lost in the Holocaust.
Four heirs of Ludwig Marum, a Jewish-German politician and public opponent of the Third Reich, brought forth the claim in a New York state court. In court documents reviewed by ARTnews, the attorney representing the heirs said the suit was filed in New York because the museum conducts business through the Manhattan nonprofit American Friends of the Israel Museum.
The medieval manuscript dubbed Bird’s Head Haggadah is believed to have been produced in southern Germany around the year 1300. It is known as the oldest surviving Ashkenazi Passover Haggadah, a volume containing ritual text that is used for religious observation. The lawsuit claims the book is worth an estimated $10 million.
Marum was killed in 1934 under official Nazi orders. Marum originally received the script as a wedding present, the suit says.
The suit further alleges that the museum originally purchased the Haggadah tome in 1946 for $600, today’s equivalent of $9,000 “in a backroom deal without obtaining any proof of ownership,” from a man who allegedly, “dealt in valuables of dubious origin,” Its whereabouts between then and when Marum was killed, are unknown.
The dispute around the museum’s ownership of the artifact was first raised publicly in 2016 when Marum’s heirs began to seek compensation from the museum for what they described as “illegal possession” of the book.
The suit claims that the museum later “removed and destroyed” a document showing that the Haggadah had been in the family’s possession for over seven decades. The filing also accuses the institution of failing to properly investigate the item’s ownership record, describing it as “stolen.”
The museum refutes this claim, arguing that, in 1984, Elizabeth — Marum’s daughter — penned a letter on behalf of the family saying the Haggadah should continue to remain in the Museum’s collection “for the benefit of the public.”
Marum’s heirs say that Elizabeth, grandmother to one of the plaintiffs, tried to recover the manuscript at this time but that the museum “thwarted” her efforts. The complaint alleges the museum “unlawfully refused to acknowledge the legitimate ownership claims issued by Dr. Marum’s daughter Elisabeth.”
“She was repeatedly thwarted by the Museum,” the claim reads.
In a statement, a spokesperson for the museum described the the heirs’ decision to sue as “unfortunate,” saying that the action is “an attempt to undo her wishes.”
The attorney representing the heirs, Meir Heller, said in a statement that the case has broader implications for bringing forward similar cases in Israel. He noted that it is not possible to the case to an Israeli court due to restrictions around statutes of limitation and that “there is no other governmental solution like an advisory committee to do justice with Holocaust victims and heirs.”
The current case “will clarify that a legal action can be brought against the Israel Museum in the United States under the HEAR act,” he added, referring to a 2016 law suspending time-based legal defenses to claims for art lost under the Nazi persecution.