An American judge has given the go ahead for the descendants of the late Hungarian Baron Mór Lipót Herzog to pursue the Hungarian state through the US courts in an attempt to recover 32 works of art allegedly stolen in the Nazi era.
Herzog, who was Jewish, was an enthusiastic art collector in pre-war Hungary, amassing one of the most important private collections of art in the country at the time. The collection included about 2,500 works of decorative art, sculpture and masterpieces by El Greco, Lucas Cranach the Elder, Francisco de Zurbarán, Courbet and Corot, among others. When Herzog died in 1934, the collection passed to his wife, and on her death in 1940, to their three children (one of whom died in a Nazi forced labour camp). Descendants of these children say that more than 40 works of art—including paintings by Cranach and Courbet—were among the family assets taken by the Nazis in 1944.
In July 2010, Herzog’s heirs, US citizen David de Csepel and Italian citizens Angela and Julia Herzog, brought the case in the US against Hungary and four state-owned entities—the Hungarian National Gallery, the Museum of Fine Arts, the Museum of Applied Arts and the Budapest University of Technology and Economics, all in Budapest—seeking the return of 43 works.
The court in Washington dismissed the claim for 11 of the 43 works after a Hungarian court rejected the 11 in 2008. There was no evidence that the Hungarian trial was unfair or prejudiced. But Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle said that the lawsuit against Hungary could proceed on 32 other works, and rejected Hungary’s argument that it acquired all Herzog’s art under the 1973 Claims Settlement Agreement.
The Washington court also rejected Hungary’s argument that it is immune from legal action under a federal law that shields foreign sovereign nations from litigation in the US. The heirs successfully argued that the immunity normally granted to US sovereigns did not apply, citing an exception in federal law for cases involving property taken in violation of international law.
The court said the heirs had alleged “substantial and non-frivolous claims” that the Herzog art had been taken “without just compensation and for discriminatory purposes”. The judge cited the heirs’ claim that despite efforts by the Herzog family to hide much of the art in a family factory cellar in Budafok, the works were found, confiscated by Hungary in collaboration with the Nazis and sent to Adolf Eichmann, who kept some and sent the rest to Germany.
The case will now go to trial, but Hungary will first appeal the court’s ruling that it is not immune from the lawsuit.
Michael Shuster, the heirs’ lawyer, told The Art Newspaper that the plaintiffs looked forward to “addressing the merits of the claims, which overwhelmingly favour them”. He said the ruling would require Hungary to open government and museum records, making it “the first time the country will face such direct scrutiny of its Holocaust era actions”. If the appeal fails, Hungary is expected to comply with the plaintiffs’ requests for documents. A foreign party that chooses not to would face court monetary sanctions, which could be imposed against its US assets.
Hungary’s lawyer in Los Angeles, Thaddeus Stauber, said that Hungary would ask the appeals court to acknowledge that “international agreements and compensation programmes in Hungary and the US long ago resolved modern day claims to the remaining works of art”. On 15 September, proceedings were delayed pending Hungary’s appeal. The appeals court will now determine whether the case can be heard in the US.
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Nazi restitution case to go ahead'