Tag Archives: art

Stolen art from World War II in Hungarian museums: The Herzog case

It was almost five years ago that I devoted a post to the dispute between the Herzog family and the Hungarian government over the priceless pieces of art that are currently in the possession of several state-owned Hungarian museums, like the Museum of Fine Arts, the Hungarian National Gallery, and the Museum of Applied Arts. The Herzog collection is the largest unsettled case of stolen art during and after World War II, and Hungary has the dubious distinction of being the only country besides Russia that refuses to relinquish art stolen from European Jews.

Zurbarán, Cranach, the Elder, El Greco Credit: Hirko Masuike, The New York Times

Zurbarán, Cranach the Elder, El Greco
Credit: Hirko Masuike, The New York Times

In that post I concentrated on the legal aspects of the case because at the time three heirs of Baron Mór Lipót Herzog, after getting nowhere in Hungarian courts, decided to continue their efforts in the United States. The Hungarian government was certain that the case would be dismissed on the grounds that a U.S. court has no jurisdiction. But on September 1, 2011 Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle of the U.S. District Court in Washington rejected Hungary’s arguments in favor of dismissing the lawsuit. The most important consequence of this ruling was that Hungary had to provide a detailed description of all the art treasures of questionable origin held by state-owned museums as well as any other state institution. Up to that point Hungarian authorities had kept all information about these items secret, even though the country had signed several international agreements regarding the compensation of victims of the Holocaust.

After September 2011 I read practically nothing about the case, with the exception of one brief news item that appeared in Bloomberg. According to the article, dated April 16, 2013, “János Lázár, chief of staff to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, said that his office is preparing a list of works of art of disputed ownership in Hungarian museums with the aim of returning looted objects to the rightful owners.” The lawyer for the Herzogs in Hungary, Ágnes Peresztegi, was elated. She announced that “the decision has enabled the government to distance itself from the previous governments’ policy of attempting to use legal technicalities to avoid restitution of looted art.” David de Csepel, great-grandson of Lipót Herzog, who is in charge of the family’s legal efforts, was also optimistic. Yet, three years later the case still hasn’t been settled.

For the third time, the U.S. District Court of Washington, D.C. has just ruled in favor of the Herzog family. Most likely the Hungarian government will appeal again. As far as the list of looted items is concerned, we haven’t heard anything on the subject since Lázár’s announcement in 2013. However, I think everybody would be interested in what kind of an art collection we are talking about, so let me turn to Mór Lipót Herzog and his incredible collection.

The family would like to get back 44 paintings, although the original collection had over 2,200 items, which have either been lost or scattered all over the world. Just to give an idea of the value of these paintings, the government commissioner in charge of cataloguing art work said back in 1945 that “the Mór Herzog collection contains treasures the artistic value of which exceeds that of any similar collection, ranking just behind Madrid.”

The few paintings that Hungary got back from the American occupying forces in Germany made the Hungarian Museum of Fine Arts one of the important depositories of the works of El Greco. His The Agony in the Garden (c. 1608) alone is worth about $100 million, but several other paintings are also worth millions: Portrait of Saint Andrew, The Portrait of Saint Anthony of Padua, The Holy Family with Saint Anne, and The Disrobing of Christ, to mention a few. The loss of the El Greco paintings would mean a serious blow to the Museum of Fine Arts.

Baron Mór Lipót Herzog's study in the 1910s

Baron Mór Lipót Herzog’s study in the 1910s

Interestingly, not much can be found online about the Herzogs. Baron Mór Lipót csetei Herzog still has no entry in the Hungarian Wikipedia. The Magyar zsidó lexikon (1929) merely notes that he was an art collector. To learn more about him I had to turn to William O. McCagg, Jr’s invaluable book, Jewish Nobles and Geniuses in Modern Hungary (1972).

The founder of the family, Adolf Herzog, was a grain trader who became a wool and tobacco merchant after he arrived in Pest from Baranya County in 1836. His son Péter took over the firm in 1862. While his father just managed to survive, Péter made some very good investments in the 1860s and 1870s, as a result of which he became a prime shareholder in the Viktoria flour mill, which was one of Pest’s largest. He also remained active in the tobacco trade and became a major Central European handler of Balkan and Turkish tobacco. He dabbled in the Hungarian coal and chemical industries. And by 1900 the Herzogs also had an interest in a commercial bank. As McCagg says, “such was the dynamism of the Hungarian take-off economy, in sum, that the Herzogs, originally grain traders, became bankers.” (p. 153) Péter received nobility in 1886.

The Herzog family in 1931-1932

The Herzog family in 1931-1932

Mór Lipót, Péter’s son, was an extremely wealthy man who could spend huge sums of money on his passion, art. I might also add that he was married to Baroness Janka Hatvany Deutsch, a member of another wealthy and influential Hungarian-Jewish family, and their children married into the Weiss family, also one of the richest ennobled Jewish families of the era.

For many years we knew very little about the journey these paintings made in 1944-45, but lately we have learned quite a bit about the details from a study by Jennifer Otterson of Columbia University. Before the war, the collection was kept at the Herzogs’ house on Andrássy Boulevard. When Mór Lipót died in 1934, he left the collection to his daughter Erzsébet Herzog Weiss de Csepel and two sons, István and András. In April 1944 the Herzogs hid their art treasures in the cellar of one of the family’s factories, but the Nazis found the hiding place and took the art to Eichmann’s headquarters for inspection. Eichmann promptly shipped much of the looted collection to Germany. In 1946-47 the Americans returned paintings they recovered to the state of Hungary with the instruction that “the Hungarian museums [could] receive the paintings but only for the express purpose of safeguarding them until their owners could be identified and located.”

Some of the collection was taken by the Soviets, and a number of pieces ended up in the State Hermitage Museum, the Pushkin Museum, and in Nizhny Novgorod. How did they end up there? There are two possibilities. Either the Soviet Army took them directly from Budapest or the Nazis sent them to Germany, where they were then found by the Soviets and taken to Russia. By now, art historians who have studied the case are pretty certain that Soviet troops found the works in Germany.

How long will the Herzogs have to wait to get part of their property back? They have been waiting for the last seventy years, during which many of the heirs of Mór Lipót Herzog have died. David de Csepel is a relatively young man who was chosen to represent the family, mostly because of his age. The hope is that he will see the day when his great-grandfather’s collection is returned, in part, to the family.

There was one point at which it looked as if the two sides could come to a peaceful resolution of the claim. When István Hiller was minister of education and culture (2006-2010), the Herzogs offered to settle: they would have been satisfied with compensation amounting to 50% of the market value of the paintings. The Hungarian government decided against the settlement. I guess they are hoping that eventually even the 45-year-old David de Csepel will die and with him the case.

June 7, 2016

You asked too much, so what was yours is now effectively ours: the case of Munkácsy’s Golgotha

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.

Mihály Munkácsy's Trilogy in the Déri Múzum in Debrecen

Mihály Munkácsy’s Trilogy in the Déri Múzum in Debrecen

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.

A Hungarian butcher’s fabulous art collection

Today’s theme, art, is not the common fare of this blog. But, fret not, the post will also deal with life in Hungary in the 1960s and 1970s. It will even touch on economics. Specifically, how the closed socialist regime in Hungary distorted the prices of art works and barred  twentieth-century Hungarian artists from becoming known outside of the country.

What inspired me to write about all this was an article in yesterday’s Népszabadság. It was about the public exhibit of a private collection of 230 Hungarian masterpieces. At the same time a book, The Secret Collection, appeared about the art works, written by art historian Péter Molnos. The collector of this treasure trove died in 1982 and he was, yes, a kosher butcher with a sixth-grade education.

István Kövesi, the butcher-collector, was one of the few “maszek” (abbreviation of magánszektor/private sector) store owners in those days. His kosher establishment was certified by the Hungarian Jewish religious authorities, but he couldn’t have made a go of the business if he had had to rely only on butchering. So he began making pickles of all kinds, for which the store became famous.

Mr. and Mrs. Kövesi in front of their butcher shop

The Kövesis in front of their butcher shop

What could a well-heeled “maszek” (and most of the “maszek” store owners did in fact prosper) do with his accumulated wealth? Not much. He couldn’t have purchased real estate because a family could have only one dwelling in addition to the one in which the family lived. Buying gold was considered to be a crime. Nobody kept money in the bank because they didn’t want the state know about their wealth. So, some people decided, the smarter ones at least, that converting their cash into art might be a good way of dealing with the dilemma.

It seems that some other “maszek” success stories had the same idea as Kövesi did, but after the change of regime, once the original collector died, the heirs immediately cashed in and the paintings were sold to art galleries or new collectors. Practically no large collection remained intact. Kövesi’s two children, on the other hand, not only hung on to the 230 paintings by the greatest names in Hungarian art but also kept the collection a secret. With some difficulty the owner of the Kieselbach Gallery managed to convince the Kövesi children to allow the collection to be exhibited.

Why did they keep the existence of the collection a secret even after democracy arrived in Hungary? Most likely out of habit. After all, the collection had to be kept a secret because as far as the state was concerned, it was illegally gained wealth. Second, keeping 230 priceless paintings safe in an ordinary, not too well secured apartment in “újlipótváros” (Neue Leopoldstadt), formerly the Jewish section of Pest, was best accomplished if nobody knew about them.

However well pickles sold in Kövesi’s store, he couldn’t have bought nine László Mednyánszky paintings if the price of art had not been so depressed in those days. The poverty of precisely the kinds of people who would have been most likely to collect art was great. If anything, older collectors were selling off pieces of their collections, mostly to BÁV, Bizományi Áruház Vállalat, a consignment store that occasionally held auctions. Any kind of private art deal was illegal, although Kövesi eventually knew enough people in the art world that he managed to get some valuable pieces straight from the artists. It was also illegal to export any work of art from Hungary.

A former economics professor of mine, John Michael Montias, who was on the side an art collector, spent a year in Hungary in 1964-1965. He told me about people arriving at the regular auctions organized by BÁV with suitcases full of cash. Perhaps István Kövesi was one of them because there was at least one occasion on which Kövesi left 160,000 forints for seven famous paintings. The average salary at the time was 2,000 a month.

Today Kövesi’s collection is exceedingly valuable. A couple of recent auction prices for paintings by artists represented in the collection give a sense of the value of the collection. A János Vaszary piece was sold in 2011 for 35 million forints. A Róbert Berényi painting was auctioned off for the same amount. Even the least expensive paintings in the collection are worth a few million.

Among the artists represented in the Kövesi collection are János Vaszary (1867-1938), Imre Ámos (1907-1944), József Rippl-Rónai (1861-1927), Vilmos Aba-Novák (1894-1941), Sándor Bortnyik (1893-1976), Izsák Perlmutter (1866-1919), László Mednyánszky, Margit Anna, Lajos Kassák, Jenő Barcsay, Béla Kádár (1877-1956), István Szőnyi (1894-1960), István Csók (1865-1961), Adolf Fényes (1867-1945), József Koszta (1861-1949), and István Pekáry (1905-1981).

As I said, before the change of regime no art work of any kind could leave the country because, the political leaders argued, the treasures of the nation must remain at home. The authorities included anything of presumed value in the list of forbidden items, not just Hungarian “treasures.” To pass through customs every questionable item needed a stamp from the authorities attesting to its “not worth keeping in the country–i.e., junk” status. As a result, these painters, some of whom may have acquired international fame, were unheard of outside of Hungary. It was a disservice to them and to the country.

One more thing about István Kövesi. He himself didn’t know anything about art before he decided to collect paintings. But he learned and also managed to find knowledgeable teachers among art historians and employees of BÁV. It was, however, always he who made the final choice. He obviously had good taste.