US Supreme Court hears dispute over Nazi treasure trove

The US Supreme Court has heard arguments over a collection of medieval artworks that Nazi Germany acquired from Jewish art dealers.

US descendants of the dealers allege the treasure trove, once owned by German royalty, was coerced out of their possession in a “forced sale”.

With Germany’s backing, the foundation that owns the pieces has called for the suit to be dismissed.

The collection is said to be worth at least $250m (£187m).

It has been on display in a Berlin art museum since 1963 and is now owned by the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation – the governmental entity that houses the collection.

The high court’s ruling could open the door for foreigners to use US courts to litigate alleged injustices in their own countries.

The case centres on the Guelph Treasure, or Welfenschatz in German, a collection of 42 church art works – including altars, crosses and other Christian relics – made between the 11th and 15th centuries and passed down from one of Europe’s oldest princely houses.

A consortium of Jewish art dealers purchased the entire collection a few months prior to the stock market crash of 1929, but sold most of the works at a reduced price in 1935 to the former German state of Prussia.

Prussian leader Hermann Göring – founder of the Gestapo secret police – may have then presented the Guelph Treasure to Nazi leader Adolf Hitler as a gift, but the two sides of the lawsuit dispute this claim.

In their 12-year legal battle, the plaintiffs have alleged the sale was coerced – at one third of the collection’s value, they estimate – as part of Nazi Germany’s campaign to persecute its Jewish population and confiscate their possessions.

US law bars civil suits against foreign governments, except in the rare case of violations of international law, and the heirs’ attorneys have successfully argued in lower courts that “if such a coerced sale is not a taking in violation of international law, then nothing is”.

The case, heard by the the Supreme Court on Monday, will decide whether they can keep fighting in US courts for either the return of the treasure or for its value in damages.

The Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation underscored that it takes the claims seriously, but said the sale was made voluntarily and at fair market value. It cited the recommendation of an independent expert commission on Nazi-looted art to keep the treasure in Berlin.

Calling for the suit to be dismissed, the foundation’s president Hermann Parzinger said: “Our view is that Germany is the proper jurisdiction for a case which involves a sale of a collection of medieval German art by German art dealers to a German state.”

The German government – previously a co-defendant in the lower court cases – has supported calls for the suit’s dismissal, as does the US government.

The Supreme Court is expected to make its ruling by June 2021.

Legal experts say the case may result in many other international disputes coming before US courts, dramatically expanding their jurisdiction.

One lower court judge noted a ruling against the Germans “would likely place an enormous strain not only upon our courts but, more to the immediate point, upon our country’s diplomatic relations with any number of foreign nations”.

The search and return of artwork confiscated or stolen by the Nazis is a lengthy process, often made longer by arduous court battles. Last year, a woman in Europe lost her 14-year fight to wrestle her Jewish ancestor’s art back from a Spanish museum.

Ella Kissi-Debrah death: Family didnt know about toxic air

The mother of a nine-year-old girl who died following an asthma attack says she “would have moved” if she had known how dangerous local air pollution was.

Ella Kissi-Debrah, who lived near the South Circular Road in Lewisham, south-east London, died in 2013.

A 2018 report found unlawful levels of pollution likely contributed to a fatal asthma attack.

At a new inquest into Ella’s death Rosamund Adoo Kissi-Debrah said her daughter was “the centre of our world”.

Ms Kissi-Debrah said “moving would have been the first thing” the family would have done if they had known the risks air pollution posed to Ella.

She told the inquest she knew about car fumes but had never heard of nitrogen oxides (NOx) – one of the most dangerous forms of air pollution.As they did not know of the risks posed by air pollution Ms Kissi-Debrah said she never spoke to doctors about moving.

Ms Kissi-Debrah branded air pollution “a public health emergency”, and called for more education about its dangers.

Ella was first taken to hospital in 2010 after a coughing fit and subsequently admitted to hospital 27 times.

Ms Kissi-Debrah said that by the summer of 2012, Ella was classified as disabled. She often had to carry Ella by piggyback to get her around.

Ella was seen by consultants at six different hospitals in the years before her death.

On the day before Ella died Ms Kissi-Debrah described her daughter “screaming” as she left her with paramedics.

“When I saw her in the ambulance I knew she was going to have a seizure, she was so bad,” Ms Kissi-Debrah said.

Describing the efforts of doctors to resuscitate Ella on the night of her death, she said: “They tried and they tried and they tried.”

Ella died at 03:27 on 15 February 2013.

An inquest in 2014, which focused on Ella’s medical care, concluded her death was caused by acute respiratory failure and severe asthma.But a 2018 report said it was likely unlawful levels of pollution, which were detected at a monitoring station one mile from Ella’s home, contributed to her fatal asthma attack.

Ella may become the first person in the UK for whom air pollution is listed as the cause of death.

The hearing continues.

Brexit: PM to meet EU chief in bid to save trade deal

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson will travel to Brussels this week to meet European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in a last ditch effort to salvage a post-Brexit trade deal.

It comes after a 90 minute phone call between the two leaders failed to produce a breakthrough.

In a joint statement, they said the conditions for a deal were “not there”.

“Significant differences” remained on fishing, business competition rules and governance of any deal, they added.

“We asked our chief negotiators and their teams to prepare an overview of the remaining differences to be discussed in a physical meeting in Brussels in the coming days,” the leaders said in their statement.

A senior UK government source has warned that a deal may not be possible, after the phone call between the PM and the European Commission president.

“Talks are in the same position now as they were on Friday. We have made no tangible progress,” the source added.

“It’s clear this must now continue politically. Whilst we do not consider this process to be closed, things are looking very tricky and there’s every chance we are not going to get there.”

EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier and his UK counterpart Lord Frost have been locked in intensive talks for the past week, as the deadline for a deal looms.

The two negotiators will meet on Tuesday to draw up a list of the outstanding differences between the two sides. EU leaders are meeting for a summit in Brussels on Thursday.

If an agreement is not reached and ratified by 31 December, the UK and EU could introduce import charges on each other’s goods.

What happens next with Brexit?

The UK’s Office for Budget Responsibility has said leaving the EU customs union and single market without a trade deal could lead to a 2% reduction in national income next year.

Labour’s shadow cabinet office minister Rachel Reeves said: “Securing a deal is critical to the British national interest for jobs and security.

“Even at this 11th hour, we urge both sides to get on with reaching an agreement. We can then focus on the job at hand which is securing the economy and rebuilding our country from the pandemic.”

Conditions for finalising UK-EU trade deal not there

UK PM and EU commission chief say conditions for finalising post-Brexit trade deal “not there” – differences still to be discussed

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The Wheel: Jackpot win saves 2020 for East Yorkshire man

A television game show contestant who scooped the programme’s top prize said his win had “saved 2020” for him and his family.

Rich Williams, from East Yorkshire, won the £28,000 jackpot on BBC1’s The Wheel, broadcast on Saturday night.

He became emotional after he told host Michael McIntyre how much the money would mean to him and his nine-year-old daughter Cherry.

Mr Williams said he was “still in shock” at his win.

The former public sector worker, who had to retire from his job due to illness, said winning the prize “hadn’t sunk in yet”.

He added: “Watching it on Saturday brought it all back, all the emotions and everything. I was in tears watching it again and my daughter was in tears.”

The 51-year-old, who has diastrophic dwarfism, retired following numerous operations to replace joints in his legs and shoulders due to severe arthritis.

With the encouragement of his daughter, he took up weightlifting and has since won five para-powerlifting world titles.

Mr Williams, who also visits schools to talk to pupils about diversity, said he was going to use the money to pay off some bills and to take his family on holiday.

“This year has been really hard as we’ve not been able compete or train, so it’s been a tough year for everybody,” he said.

“Just having that win and knowing what we can do with that, it just meant so much to not have to worry for a little while and to be able to still provide for my daughter.”

As well as family and friends in the UK, Mr Williams said he had been congratulated by friends from around the world.

“It made their nights for them to have a little bit of happiness at the end of a rubbishy year,” he said.

Doug Scott: Everest summit mountaineer dies aged 79

A mountaineer who was part of the first UK team to summit Everest via the south-west face has died aged 79.

Doug Scott was part of the famous team to complete the challenge in 1975.

He also founded the charity Community Action Nepal (CAN) in 1994 to help people in the Himalayas, and had raised thousands of pounds in lockdown by climbing up and down his stairs.

Nottingham-born Mr Scott, who had cancer, died at his home in Caldbeck, in the Lake District.

On 24 September 1975, expedition leader Chris Bonington reported Dougal Haston and Mr Scott, part of an 18-strong group, had reached the 29,028ft (8,848m) summit safely and were on their way down the mountain.

The south-west face of Everest has been regarded as one of mountaineering’s most difficult challenges because of its length and exposure to high-level winds.

A spokesman for CAN said: “It is with a very, heavy heart that we inform you that our founder, leader and great friend, Doug Scott, passed away peacefully this morning, at his home with his family around him.”

The 1975 expedition was marred by the disappearance of another climber, Mick Burke, four days later on his way to the summit.

After the Everest expedition, Mr Scott recalled how their torches had failed and they were out of oxygen so he and Mr Haston decided to camp 300ft from the summit.

“The main thing was to get out of the wind so we dug a snow cave and sat on our rucksacks for the next nine hours in temperatures of around minus 40 degrees centigrade,” he said.

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