Heirs of collector sue Hungary for return of art stolen by Nazis


Jewish banker Baron Herzog’s collection, confiscated during Holocaust, now hang in Budapest’s finest museums

HEIRS OF Hungary’s greatest prewar art collector are suing the country in the US courts over ownership of paintings worth an estimated $100 million (€76 million) in the largest unresolved claim for art confiscated during the Holocaust.

The collection of banker Baron Mor Lipot Herzog included works by El Greco, Lucas Cranach the Elder, de Zurbaran, van Dyck, Velázquez and Monet, some of which now hang in Budapest’s finest museums. But they are tainted by the tragedy that befell Europe’s Jews, and by the bitterness of a long-running ownership battle between Hungary and the Herzogs.

When Baron Herzog died in 1934, his collection of some 2,500 pieces passed to his widow and subsequently to three children, Erzsebet, Istvan and Andras.

Andras was sent to a labour camp in 1942 and died shortly afterwards, while Istvan was deported along with more than 400,000 other Hungarian Jews to the German extermination camps. He escaped from a train on the way to Auschwitz and spent the rest of the war in hiding.

The Herzogs tried to save their collection by hiding it in a family factory in a Budapest suburb but, when Nazi Germany invaded Hungary as its loyalty to the Third Reich wavered in 1944, the art was uncovered and presented to SS commander Adolf Eichmann.

Eichmann dispatched some pieces to Germany, while the rest were left with the fascist puppet government in Budapest.

After the war, Hungary’s new communist regime refused to return the artworks and some became key elements of the country’s collection, and are still on show in Budapest’s National Gallery and Museum of Fine Arts.

“Herzog’s art collection was the greatest in prewar Hungary . . . he combined great paintings, renaissance furniture and sculpture and precious objects to create an atmosphere to delight any connoisseur,” said art historian Constance Lowenthal. “The Herzog collection was comparable to the best house museums we know – the Frick Collection in New York and the Wallace Collection in London.”

The Herzog family intensified efforts to reclaim the collection after communism collapsed in Hungary in 1989, but two decades of legal action have failed to secure its return from Budapest.

“My family was forced at gunpoint to leave Hungary, and some didn’t make it. They were sent out to concentration camps and never heard from again. We can’t of course redo the past, but there are some areas where justice can be done,” said David de Csepel, grandson of Erzsebet Herzog and the lead plaintiff in the new suit, which was filed in Washington last week.

“My grandmother used to cut out pictures from art books of paintings from her father’s collection and hang them in her New York city apartment,” Mr de Csepel told the Los Angeles Times.“He worked so hard to build a legacy, and she worked hard to preserve it.” The family are demanding the return of 40 artworks from Hungary, but also want the country to present an inventory of all the pieces that it possesses from the original Herzog collection. Many items are thought to be in Russia and elsewhere in eastern Europe. In contrast to Hungary, Germany and Austria have returned pieces to the family without court action.

Budapest is unlikely to relinquish the paintings without a fight, however. “According to the 1973 American-Hungarian Claims Agreement, Hungary already paid compensation, and this means the Herzog family lost their right to the artworks,” said Gyorgy Szucs, deputy director of the Hungarian National Gallery. “This is the second time the heirs sue Hungary, first they were turned down three years ago by the Hungarian government.”