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Test case for restitution in Hungarian museums as claim on 11 paintings proceeds to appeal

The paintings seized by the Nazis, then the Communist government, may yet remain with the state

The Hungarian government has appealed against an October verdict by a Budapest court that awarded ownership of 11 paintings, including works by El Greco, Courbet and Lucas Cranach the Elder, to Martha Nierenberg, granddaughter of banker Baron Mor Lipot Herzog from whose collection the works were stolen by the Nazis (The Art Newspaper, No.108, November 2000, p.3)

The 11 paintings in question were subsequently seized by Hungary’s Communist regime and they have spent the past few decades on the walls of Hungarian State museums.

The hearing which is scheduled for the coming months, will set a precedent for Hungarian authorities reluctant to yield to restitution pressures.

The government, which based its refusal to return the works on Communist-era nationalisation laws and on a 1973 compensation agreement signed by the US and Hungary, expects the court to overturn the previous verdict.

“The Treasury Asset Directorate has appealed against the decision and we are now waiting for the hearing date to be set,” said Ivan Ronai, head of the Ministry of National Cultural Heritage department in charge of restitution issues. “It is a terribly complicated legal procedure, but it is certain that the majority of the paintings in question fall under the scope of the Hungarian-American compensation agreement, so the court’s verdict to award the paintings to [Ms Nierenberg] came as a surprise for us.”

The paintings, stored at the National Gallery of Hungary and the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest, were among more than 2,500 works of art owned by Ms Nierenberg’s grandfather, banker Baron Mor Lipot Herzog. Herzog’s was one of the largest and most notable private collections in Hungary, with works by Renoir, Degas, Gauguin, Rubens and Van Dyck and more paintings by El Greco than most other private collections worldwide.

The collection was seized in the last days of World War II upon orders from SS commander Adolf Eichmann, who shipped his personal choices to Germany. The remaining works, including the paintings in question, were later handed over to the Museum of Fine Arts for safekeeping.

In subsequent years, Ms Nierenberg’s mother, Erzsebet Herzog, made unsuccessful efforts to recover these works. Following the demise of the Communist regime in 1989, she started negotiations with the government and managed to retrieve three paintings attributed to unknown artists.

After five years of fruitless negotiations, her daughter filed a lawsuit against the government and its museums in 1999 for the return of the 12 paintings.

In April 1999, Hungary announced the restitution of Mihály Munkácsy’s “Christ in a White Robe” (about 1886), admitting the painting had never been nationalised as the government earlier claimed.

Late last year, a court in Budapest ordered the return of all but one painting to Ms Nierenberg.

Her lawyers, who are supported by the Commission for Art Recovery of the World Jewish Congress (WJC), say the government’s arguments are untenable.

“As far as we know, the case will now end up before the Highest Court of Appeals of Hungary,” said Balazs Pasztory, Nierenberg’s legal advisor in the case and a partner with law firm Squire, Sanders and Dempsey’s Budapest office. “We trust that the highest court will uphold the verdict, and Martha and her lawyers are convinced that the law is on their side.”

If the court’s verdict is upheld on appeal, Ms Nierenberg is unsure what she will do with the paintings, Pasztory said. “She cannot decide before the final verdict arrives,” he said. “She might keep them or might offer them for philanthropic purposes. After the return of the Munkacsy painting, Ms Nierenberg placed it in the custody of the National Gallery of Hungary. She might auction some of the paintings to finance the costs of the lawsuit,” he said.

Whatever the outcome, the lawsuit will define Hungarian authorities’ approach towards further claims. “Hungarian law knows of no precedent, but courts are likely to acknowledge this verdict in subsequent decisions,” Pasztory said.

Hungarian museums still store several hundred works of art obtained under questionable circumstances. Miklos Mojzer, director of the Fine Arts Museum in Budapest, put the number of works from the Herzog collection now stored in the museum at around 30.

The WJC has also indicated that it views the lawsuit as a test case for Hungary, which has so far failed to adhere to international standards on restitution. The WJC will assist other claimants, two of whom are already preparing to sue.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Test case for restitution in Hungarian museums'

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 113 April 2001