updated 11/6/2008 6:02:06 PM ET 2008-11-06T23:02:06

An 82-year-old Holocaust survivor and his family are suing the German government over an extensive art collection, including paintings by El Greco and Peter Paul Rubens, seized by the Nazis and sold at auction during World War II.

The lawsuit is unusual because it is seeking damages for lost art rather than the return of items that once belonged to Holocaust victims, lawyers said. The suit estimates the 400 or more works would be worth "tens of millions" of dollars today.

Retired economics professor Fred Westfield said he was celebrating this 12th birthday when he last saw his uncle, Walter Westfeld, a renowned art collector. Two days later came Kristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass, on Nov. 9, 1938, when Nazis looted and burned Jewish synagogues and businesses across Germany and Austria.

Uncle killed in death camp
The young Westfield fled Germany shortly thereafter as part of a British refugee program in response to Kristallnacht that brought about 10,000 Jewish children to England. He later moved to the United States with his parents, when the family anglicized their name by adding an "i".

Walter Westfeld, though, was arrested a few days after Kristallnacht on currency violation charges for trying to move his art work to the United States and the Nazis auctioned hundreds of his painting and tapestries to pay his fine, the lawsuit says.

Among the items were an El Greco that Adolf Hitler wanted for his personal collection, paintings by Dutch masters Frans Hals and Peter Paul Rubens and works by French impressionist Camille Pissarro.

Westfeld remained in prison and concentration camps until he was killed in the Auschwitz death camp in Poland.

In 2004, Westfield said he was doing an Internet search for his uncle's name and learned the Boston Museum of Fine Arts was looking for Walter Westfeld's descendants.

A museum archivist was trying to find out if the Nazis illegally sold "Portrait of a Man and a Woman in an Interior" by the 17th Century Dutch master Eglon van der Neer, he said.

"It was essentially my uncle's money that made it possible for our family to survive," said Westfield, who retired from Vanderbilt University in Nashville. "His heirs have a right to what was taken away from them. We are not trying to recover particular pictures because we really don't have the resources to find the 400 or more items auctioned off at the demand of the states attorney in Dusseldorf."

The lawsuit, filed in Davidson County Chancery Court, says today's Germany is responsible for the actions of Hitler's regime and wants a jury to award an unspecified amount for the loss to Westfield's heirs.

Lempertz auction house in Cologne, Germany, claimed the property was destroyed during bombing in WWII, but the lawsuit includes a copy of the December 1939 sale catalog and price list.

"The conversion and sale were part of an integrated policy in which Jews were deprived of their artwork on fabricated grounds to appear as if the government was just enforcing laws, the goal being to raise substantial liquid funds on sale for the government and party officials," the lawsuit says.

'Germany needs to remedy'
Overton Thompson III of Bass Berry & Sims law firm in Nashville and Vanderbilt law professor Jeffrey Schoenblum filed the suit Oct. 3.

"Westfeld had much of his entire art collection taken and he was treated in such a horrific manner before he was exterminated," Schoenblum said. "Our hope is that the matter can be resolved without pursuing lengthy litigation. Germany needs to remedy for what was done with respect to this prominent art dealer and his property."

Schoenblum said the lawsuit is unusual because it seeks payment rather than the art works. Previous cases, such as a claim against Elizabeth Taylor for a Vincent van Gogh painting, have sought to have the art returned from current owners to the family's estate.

For now, Westfield's family and attorneys are waiting to see if the German government accepts litigation papers. Under the Hague Convention, the country has three months to accept the lawsuit or reject it on grounds that it is a sovereign government, Schoenblum said.

Douglas Berry, Germany's honorary consul in Nashville, said he has knowledge of the lawsuit but no authority to comment on it. He directed inquires to Germany's Washington, D.C. embassy, which did not return phone and e-mail requests for a comment.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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