U.S. Heirs to Nazi-looted Art Now Able to Sue Hungarian Institutions for Recovery

The Herzog family, who had fled Hungary in 1944, owned one of the largest art collections in the country before the war

File photo: German soldiers of the Hermann Göring Division posing in front of Palazzo Venezia in Rome in 1944 with a picture of looted art taken from the Biblioteca del Museo Nazionale di Napoli.
German Federal Archive

A U.S. federal court has ruled that the heirs to one of the largest art collections in Hungary prior to World War II may sue for the recovery of some of the works from Hungarian institutions in the U.S. court system.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit on Tuesday ruled that the heirs of Baron Mór Lipót Herzog can sue Hungarian state-owned museums and a university to recover the more than 40 pieces of art with an estimated value exceeding $100 million.

The collection includes works artists including El Greco, Francisco de Zurbarán, Lucas Cranach the Elder, van Dyck, Velázquez and Monet.

The court found that the Hungarian institutions’ claims that they are immune from jurisdiction under the United States Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, in which foreign countries are exempt from being sued by U.S. citizens,   and agreed with the Herzog heirs that the seizure of the collection during the Holocaust constituted genocidal takings in violation of international law.  The court also agreed that a 1947 peace treaty between Hungary and the United States does not bar the claims.

The court dismissed the Republic of Hungary as a defendant under the act, however.

De Csepel v. Republic of Hungary was originally filed in 2010 in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia after the family unsuccessfully pursued the art through other channels for decades, including the Hungarian courts, which in 2008 ruled that Hungary was not required to return the art.

The lawsuit was filed by David de Csepel of Los Angeles, a great-grandson of Baron Herzog, on behalf of about a dozen relatives.

Csepel told the New York Times in 2010 that he remembers his grandmother talking about the art, when he was a boy living in New York.

The family believes there are many other Herzog artworks still in Hungary that they are not aware of and are not named in the lawsuit. In addition, the family has made legal claims for Herzog artwork in Poland, Russia and Germany.

The Herzog family members fled Hungary in 1944 in order to escape genocide, which was being carried out by Hungarian authorities with technical assistance by the Nazi SS. The Hungarian government enacted a law requiring Jews to deposit their art with the government for “safekeeping,” requiring the family to leave the artworks behind.  The Herzog Collection was inspected personally by Adolf Eichmann, who designated certain works for shipment to Germany.  Others were left in Hungary’s possession or looted by others, according to the website Hungary on Trial, which chronicles the family’s search to recover the collection.