Hungary Hit with Enormous Nazi Loot Claim

Hungary Hit with Enormous Nazi Loot Claim

In what could be the single largest Nazi restitution claim in history, descendants of Hungarian banker Baron Mor Lipot Herzog have filed suit against Hungary in U.S. court, alleging that the nation is holding more than 40 works of art that were stolen from Herzog during World War II. The new lawsuit comes a week after anothernotorious restitution case involving Egon Schiele's "Portrait ofWally" was settled in a U.S. court, allowing the Nazi-looted work to remain in the hands of Austria's Leopold Foundation upon the payment of $19 million to the heirs of the work's original owner. 

The Herzog filing, which makes a claim for at least 40 works of art, is the latest in an ongoing war between the family and the Hungarian government. The most recent battle was fought in 2008, when a Hungarian court denied the family’s right to the art — a trove including works by Zurbarán, Velázquez, and Monet — saying that the nation’s government was not required to turn over the paintings. In the latest lawsuit, the Herzog family is also demanding that Hungary furnish a complete inventory of all the works it possesses that once belonged to the family.

Hungary has said that it is willing to cooperate in returning the paintings, but only if the courts approve the process. Gabor Foldvari, the nation’s deputy consul general to New York told Carol Vogel of the New York Times that “it was not the government’s decision, but the court’s decision.” However, a lawyer for the family characterized the country as one of the “most recalcitrant” in acting on claims of looted art.

Among the contested artworks are French Realist Gustav Courbets "The Spring," French landscape painter Camille Corots "Portrait of a Woman," Alonso Canos "Portrait of Don Balthasar Carlos," and El Grecos "Agony in the Gardnen." The Herzog family has created a Web site with information about the case, including a photo gallery with images of 29 works of art, at the bluntly-titled Web address www.hungarylootedart.com.

At least one expert has a rather straightforward view on the difficulty at the heart of the case. Sotheby’s Old Master head George Wachter told Vogel that the paintings are of a high quality. “I can understand why Hungary wouldn’t let them go,” he said.