The dispute between the heirs of Baron Mór Lipót Herzog, a wealthy art collector, and the Hungarian government which "inherited" the looted art treasure has been going on ever since 1945. Baron Herzog was dead by the time of the Holocaust. He died in 1934, but his heirs hid the collection that at one point consisted of more than 2,000 pieces in the basement of one of their factories.
The collection was discovered by German and Hungarian Nazis and looted. Some of the works ended up in the private collection of Adolf Eichmann himself. Others were captured by the Soviets, which by the way the Hungarian government is claiming as its own without any success. A large number of them are, however, in the possession of the Museum of Fine Arts, the Hungarian National Gallery, the Museum of Applied Arts, and of all places the Budapest University of Technology and Economics. The Herzog heirs demand the return of 44 items.
The Herzog collection had some priceless paintings by such artists as El Greco, Francisco de Zurbarán, and Lucas Cranach the Elder. The three heirs–David L. de Csepel of Sherman Oaks, California and Angela Maria Herzog and Julia Alice Herzog, both of Rome, Italy–filed a complaint in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia in which they demanded the return of the 44 pieces. That was in July 2010. The Hungarian government took its time to respond. It was only in February 2011 that they filed a motion to dismiss the case on the grounds that a U.S. court has no jurisdiction over the case under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA). In May the plaintiffs filed an opposition complaint. The Hungarian government had until June 15 to respond.
Prior to the judgment legal scholars suspected that the case might not be decided in Hungary's favor. They based their opinion on an earlier case when the Russian government's motion to dismiss a similar complaint filed by the attorneys for the Chabad-Lubavitch movement was denied. Michael Shuster of New York's Kasowitz, Benson, Torres & Friedman, who is representing the Herzog heirs, pointed to two arguments for an exception under FSIA that were cited by the appellate court in the Chabad case. First, the plaintiffs argued that the objects in question had been taken in violation of international law and, second, the foreign government in question does business in the United States.
The counsel for Hungary, Thaddeus Stauber of Washington's Nixon Peabody, was certain that there were too many differences between the two cases and therefore the case would be dismissed. However, Stauber was overly optimistic. On September 1, Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle of the U.S. District Court in Washington rejected Hungary's arguments to dismiss the lawsuit. Only eleven artworks that had been the subject of judicial proceedings in Hungary were exceptions "on grounds of comity." That means that there was a friendly settlement between another heir of Baron Herzog and the Hungarian government in 1973 amounting to about $100,000.
Anyone who is interested in Judge Huvelle's decision can read her 46-page opinion on the Internet. The most important consequence of this ruling is that Hungary must provide a detailed description of all the art treasures of questionable origin held by state-owned museums or any other state institutions. According to some art historians even Hungarian ministries hold looted art works. State officials and employees of museums must under oath give testimony and must allow the courts to study all material relevant to the art works. Up to now the Hungarian authorities kept all information concerning these items secret. This is especially glaring considering that Hungary signed agreements on various international forums concerning the compensation of victims of the Holocaust.
Some fear that this lengthy litigation will put Hungary in a very unfavorable light and claim that this messy and expensive litigation could have been avoided. In 2006 the representative of the Commission for Art Recovery, Charles Goldstein, tried to negotiate with István Hiller, minister of culture, and László Baán, director of the Museum of Fine Arts, but the two Hungarian officials refused to talk to him. As a result, he told some people who attended a conference on the subject that the Herzog heirs will sue the Hungarian government in the United States.
As Éva Hajdú of HVG put it in today's paper, now "the whole world will find out about Hungary's role in the Holocaust and the confiscation of property." Judit N. Kósa of Népszabadság yesterday in an op/ed piece welcomed the decision. After fifty years of avoiding the question the Hungarian government must finally provide a list of looted and illegally held property. The double talk that has been going on in the last twenty years will have to come to an end. However, says Kósa, she no longer believes that she will live to see the day when the Hungarian authorities come up with a list of stolen artworks. After all, she was in grade one when the Herzog heirs settled part of their claim in 1973 and since then nothing has happened. I, however, can't believe that the question can be now avoided given the court's ruling in Washington.