The Orbán government has once again exhibited its penchant for “unusual/illegal” business practices. I’m talking about the controversy over the sale of one of the three large paintings, collectively referred to as the Trilogy, that Mihály Munkácsy (1844-1900) worked on between 1882 and 1896. The three huge canvases (25m²) depict Christ’s final days: Christ before Pilate, Golgotha, and Ecce Homo. Currently, all three can be seen in the Déri Múzeum in Debrecen. Two of the paintings are on permanent display but Golgotha is on loan and owned by Imre Pákh, an American-Hungarian businessman with a fascination for Munkácsy. The attraction might stem from the fact that both men were born in Munkács/Mukachevo, now in Ukraine.
Imre Pákh is no stranger to Hungarian Spectrum. He was featured twice. Once as a possible benefactor of the extreme right in Hungary and once as a businessman financing a quack named Professor Yuliy V. Baltaytis, who ran a clinic practicing stem cell “therapy.” In fact, it was only a few days ago that Pákh was found guilty in connection with that case and received a ten-month suspended sentence.
Pákh most likely has the largest collection of Munkácsy paintings in the world, 53 in all. A few years ago, he lent Golgotha to the museum in Debrecen so that the three pieces could again be exhibited together, as they were supposed to be when the idea was originally conceived. The Hungarian government was quite satisfied with the arrangement because Munkácsy over the last fifty years or so had been elevated to the status of the national painter.
It is true that Munkácsy was extremely popular when he first appeared in Paris in the 1860s, and eventually he became something of an artistic star. If you ask knowledgeable art historians, however, they will tell you that Munkácsy is greatly overrated. He was a mediocre painter who even in his own lifetime was considered to be outmoded. He was still painting in the style of the Barbizon School when even impressionism was already passé in France.
Munkácsy’s art also suffered from his attraction to the material pleasures of life. He was ready to sell his talent to the highest bidder. In fact, one of his “business ventures” is behind the birth of the Trilogy. He signed a ten-year contract with an Austrian-born art dealer, Charles Sedelmeyer, from whom received a large monthly salary. It was he who came up with the idea of three large paintings about the death of Jesus Christ. Once all three were painted, the two organized tours of the paintings in various large cities of Europe. It was a simple business venture: to collect as much money as possible from entrance fees. Eventually the three paintings were bought by John Wanamaker, an American millionaire, who exhibited them at Easter time in his Philadelphia department store.
Pákh lent Golgotha to the Déri Múzum with the understanding that the Hungarian government would purchase it to make the set complete. He now claims that two years ago two officials of the prime minister’s office shook hands with him on a price of $9 million. Subsequently, however, Pákh learned that he would have to negotiate with the Hungarian National Bank over the price. The bank considers the earlier arrangement null and void. And it refuses to pay more than $6 million for the painting because it paid about $6 million to acquire Christ before Pilate from the Art Gallery of Hamilton (Canada) in January of this year. Moreover, the Hungarians claim that three Hungarian experts consider the picture not worth the price Pákh was asking. Pákh’s answer is that he was not allowed to see the estimates, but he knows that they are not really independent appraisers. Moreover, one could argue, quite independently of its artistic merit, that this piece is more valuable than the one purchased from the art gallery in Hamilton, Ontario, because it completes the set.
In any case, the two sides couldn’t agree on a price, and Pákh announced that he is packing the painting up and selling it to a Swiss-Russian buyer who will pay him $10 million. At this point the prime minister’s office placed the painting under the protection of the Hungarian government, which means that the painting cannot leave the country. The painting has thus lost practically all its value because who would buy a painting that cannot be moved out of Hungary? According to one opinion, this move by the government is perfectly legal because “it serves the defense of national culture.” Others think differently, claiming that the law regulating the protection of art objects states that the item in question must have been stored in Hungary for at least fifty years before it can be placed under “protection,” and clearly this is not the case with Pákh’s painting.
According to Pákh, the Hungarians not only confiscated his personal property but even threatened him with expulsion from the country. This morning János Lázár admitted that the decision to place the painting under the protection of the government might not be “sportsmanlike,” but in the interest of the homeland the decision had to be made “with unexpected speed.” He sarcastically added that “we wanted to convince Mr. Pákh with this friendly gesture that it is worth coming to an agreement with the Hungarian government.” The Hungarian government “doesn’t allow itself to be blackmailed.” The price the Hungarian National Bank offered is “the standard international price,” and there is no way the government will pay a penny more for it. To the question about a possible law suit, Lázár cynically remarked that a law suit takes a very long time. So, Pákh can go ahead and sue.
Válasz, an internet site close to the government, argues that the government’s move is legal, but its article on the subject admits that “the majority of the comments consider the ‘protection’ nothing but stealing.” HVG‘s headline reads: “Since it couldn’t buy it, the government keeps Golgotha at home by force.” Népszabadság thinks that “the government conned the owner of Munkácsy’s Golgotha.”
The government seems to be acting on a version of the old adage that possession is nine-tenths of the law. But, as a legal dictionary notes, this adage is a rule of force and not of law, since ownership requires the right to possess as well as actual or constructive possession. And there’s no compelling legal evidence that the Hungarian government has any right to possess Munkácsy’s Golgotha. Once again, the rule of force trumps the rule of law in the prime minister’s office.