Tag Archives: David de Csepel

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