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December 01, 2004

Strange verdict on looted WWII property

The Supreme Court let stand Monday a lower court ruling allowing the U.S. Army to keep four watercolors painted by Adolf Hitler that were seized in Germany after World War II. Without comment, the justices turned aside a challenge by the family of late German photographer Heinrich Hoffmann Sr., which had sought either the return of the paintings as well as 2.5 million photographs — or millions of dollars in damages.

The 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.

Hoffmann's family contended the photographer was a victim of wartime art pillaging and that the seizure of the paintings as well as 2.5 million photographs violated their constitutional rights. The U.S. government countered that the photos and paintings were Nazi art that was confiscated to "de-Nazify Germany."

The court's action appears to lay to rest a nearly 20-year battle involving the government, Hoffmann relatives and Texas art investor Billy F. Price, who bought rights to the works. The latest challenge involved a technical issue that brought the case back to the high court after justices refused to hear an initial appeal in 2002.