Holocaust-era art theft suit demands report on Hungary

Over $100m value makes lawsuit world's largest unsettled holocaust claim.

El Greco painting 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
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 London.
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.
The art 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 safekeeping.
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 return.
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.”
“Hungary 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 Herzog family.
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 litigation.
“[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.”