El Greco painting 311.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
NEW YORK – A lawsuit demanding a full and transparent inventory of all art
looted during World War II held by Hungary was filed in US Federal Court in
Washington, DC on Tuesday, the first time this request has ever been made in an
art restitution suit.
The suit – representing the world’s largest
unsettled Holocaust art claim – had been filed against Hungary, three
state-owned museums and one state-owned university, and seeks the return of the
Herzog Collection, comprising over 40 artworks with a combined value of over
$100 million, to the Herzog family heirs.
The suit, likely to be the
world’s last Holocaust art claim of this magnitude, follows over two decades of
requests for the artwork.
The works come from the collection originally
held by Baron Mór Lipót Herzog, and are known to include paintings by El Greco,
Camille Corot and Gustave Courbet.
At least one expert has said that the
entirety of the Herzog Collection was once comparable to the cumulative quality
of the Frick Collection in New York and the Wallace Collection in
The plaintiffs include the baron’s granddaughters, who fled
Hungary after their father’s deportation and death on the Russian front in 1943.
Between mid-May and July 1944, Hungarian authorities deported over 430,000 Jews,
more than 50% of the Hungarian Jewish population.
In May 1944, the
Hungarian Ministry of the Interior issued a decree which required Jews to
register all their art objects. The Herzog family attempted to hide their
collection in the cellar of one of the family factories, but the collection was
discovered by Nazi collaborators and the Hungarian government.
was taken to Adolf Eichmann, who picked through the collection, displayed his
selected “trophies” and then shipped them to Germany. The remaining works were
handed over by the Hungarian government to the Hungarian Museum of Fine Arts for
Under the 1947 peace treaty between Hungary and the Allies,
the Herzog heirs retained ownership over the collection. Nonetheless, Hungary
has held the artworks since the genocide of its Jewish population, despite years
of negotiations and international appeals for the collection’s
The artworks that are the subject of this lawsuit, plaintiffs
contend, are among the main attractions at Hungary’s Museum of Fine Arts and the
Hungarian National Galley.
One guidebook to the Museum of Fine Arts
includes four art works from the collection, including El Greco’s “The Agony in
the Garden,” while another guidebook includes two artworks from the collection.
The works are identified as being “from the Herzog Collection.”
has made a mockery of the international agreements it has ratified to return
property taken during the Holocaust,” the Herzog family’s Web site contends,
noting that in 2010, Germany returned a 16th century work by George Pencz to the
The Herzogs sold the Pencz at Christie’s in London this
month for $8.5 million, and are using the money to finance the US
“[The Pencz work] previously had been held in German museums
and the museums, upon discovering the artwork’s origin, voluntarily returned it
to the Herzog family,” the Web site states. “Hungary, meanwhile, continues to
ignore the practices of its European neighbors and has stonewalled the family’s
attempts to recover possession of its property, thereby perpetuating the evils
committed by Hungary during the Holocaust.”