The east German state of Saxony was obliged yesterday to pay millions in compensation to descendants of the 17th century king "August the Strong" for hundreds of valuable porcelain artefacts confiscated by the communist authorities after the Second World War.
The porcelain treasure trove amounts to nearly 300 pieces – 17th and early 18th century figures and figurines which currently form part of Saxony's priceless royal art collections, many of which have been housed in museums in the state capital Dresden since the late 1950s.
Yesterday however, Saxony reluctantly agreed to pay €4.2m (£3.5m) to the Wettin family, the direct descendants of the 17th century king of Saxony and Poland. The state conceded that communist authorities had effectively stolen the royal porcelain from the family after 1945 and illegally declared it state property.
Steffen Winter, an arts commentator for Der Spiegel magazine, claimed yesterday that the payment was the beginning of a "compensation marathon that will keep the art world holding its breath for years".
The family head, Albert, Prince of Saxony, welcomed the ruling and said the payment would be of great financial help to the family as his elderly sisters were living in "depressing circumstances" in small apartments in Munich, while he lived in rented accommodation.
The family hid much of the collection in a walled-up section of a cellar in Saxony's Schloss Mortizburg castle before fleeing from the invading Soviet Army in the spring of 1945. The rest was given to a Protestant pastor who hid the artefacts in a church attic. But in 1947, the communist authorities discovered both caches and promptly confiscated them.
Under new laws adopted by eastern Germany after reunification in 1990, the Wettins have been able in principle to reclaim the objects. However, securing their return in practice has been a different matter.
The family sought the help of a Berlin law firm which, in 2005, began trawling through kilometres of microfilm in Saxony's state archives for evidence that the Wettins were the original owners of the artefacts.
Early on, the search produced six large porcelain figures including two lions. The state of Saxony refused to pay compensation at the time, so the apparently cash-strapped Wettins put them up for auction at Christie's where they fetched £2.8m in 2006.