Jul 28, 2010

Hungary Sued in US Over Nazi-Era Restitution Claim

One of the claimed works
"The Annunciation of Saint Joachim", by Lucas Cranach the Elder, 

Carol Vogel reports that the descendants of a Hungarian banker have filed suit in United States District Court over the disposition of a number of works of art.  The defendants include Hungary and a number of Hungarian museums.  The claimants are the descendents of Baron Mor Lipot Herzog, a jewish-Hungarian banker.  Vogel reports that most of the disputed works have been "hanging in Hungarian museums, where it was left for safekeeping during World War II or placed after being stolen by the Nazis and later returned to Hungary."  

I have not been able to track down the plaintiff's complaint just yet, so I cannot really comment on the substance of these claims.  Vogel reports that this suit raises new issues in that the claimants are seeking 40 specific works, but have also asked for an accounting of other works which may have once been owned by the Herzog family.  It seems curious that these claimants are bringing suit in the United States for these objects, jurisdiction must surely play an important role in the case, as will the timeliness of these claims.  It seems the claimants have been requesting these works for nearly twenty years.  A court in Hungary has ruled against the claimants in 2008, so it remains to be seen how an American court will be able to exercise jurisdiction over a dispute involving works once owned by a Hungarian, which are now on display in Hungary, and which have been previously ruled upon by a Hungarian court.  
A Renaissance portrait by Georg Pencz, recently restituted

We can contrast the litigation of these issues with the approach of the Spoliation Advisory Panel in the United Kingdom.  Rather than litigate these issues, the panel is charged with evaluating the claims of those who were dispossessed of their works of art during the Nazi era.  It recently handed over this work to the descendants of Baron Mor Lipot Herzog, and was recently sold for 5.6 million pounds at a Christie's auction.  

Reading Vogel's account, we are left wondering why exactly Hungary has refused to work with the claimants.  It appears they approached Hungary and asked to "split" the paintings under dispute but were refused.  These are important works, and one can understand why a State or museum would be reluctant to lose them.  Yet Vogel's account paints Hungary as a villain, unable and unwilling to account for Nazi-era works.  Is it really that simple?  Surely there must be a principled reason for Hungary refusing to return these works?  Anyone who has access to the complaint or to the recent Hungarian decision, please do drop me a line (derek.fincham "at" gmail.com).  
  1. Carol Vogel, Hungary Is Sued Over Large Holocaust Art Claim, The New York Times, July 27, 2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/28/arts/design/28lawsuit.html?_r=2&partner=rss&emc=rss (last visited Jul 28, 2010).
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