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Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Hungary's Nazi-looted Art Restitution Record & the Herzog Family

The heirs of Hungarian banker Baron Mor Lipot Herzog, one of the most well-known art collectors of his time, have filed suit in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia against Hungary and some of its museums seeking restitution of their art.  The heirs have sought restitution out of court from Hungary and its museums for over twenty years.  The Iron Curtain prevented much restitution discussion for almost fifty years after the end of Word War II, of course.  Hungary has one of the worst restitution records of any nation. 

The heirs also have had a case pending in Russia since 1999.  Russia's record on restitution is abysmal.  It has labeled art taken back home by troops as "trophy art" to serve as cultural restitution for Nazi destruction of evidence of Slavic culture in the East.  Its argument fails to take into account many compelling reasons to return the art, including that much of the art was stolen from Jews before being acquired by the Nazis.  When I visited the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, two rooms full of "trophy art" were on display. 

This year, Germany restituted a number of pieces to the Herzog heirs, including a painting auctioned for $8.5 million earlier this month.  The proceeds of that auction will be used to fund the litigation.  Some people are saying that the Herzog heirs' claim is the world's largest unresolved Holocaust art claim; at least $100 million is at issue in the law suit alone.  Here and here are two informative articles. 

It is essential for the United States to exercise leadership concerning Holocaust asset restitution if we are to expect Eastern European nations to honor undeniably meritorious restitution claims.  Over one-half millions Jews were killed in the genocide in Hungary during World War II.  Don't the survivors, who lost everyone and everything, at least deserve their property back? 

Posted by Jen Kreder on July 28, 2010 at 11:38 AM | Permalink


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Today's Los Angeles Times now has an article on this as well, the conclusion speaking to the strategy of their campaign: I too can't see how one might conclude that it's at all distasteful: http://www.latimes.com/news/custom/topofthetimes/national/la-et-nazi-art-20100729,0,4515117.story

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Jul 29, 2010 11:13:45 AM

I am not as familiar with Hungarian history as I am with German, Austrian and Polish, so I will draw primarily on that knowledge in responding, geo.

In Germany, one's having received post-war compensation from the government is no bar to getting restitution of the art once it was located and restituted; the (usually small) post-war compensation is simply re-paid to the government.

I will assume like you say that at some point, the Herzog heirs accepted a payment. Many heirs of Polish Jews west of the Iron Curtain did the same thing in regard to other assets pursuant to a Cold War treaty. It was a pittance paid when there clearly was no option. I highly doubt that Hungary paid reasonable compensation during the Cold War to the Herzog heirs, who are the rightful owners of one of the most stellar art collections in existence in 1933. Particularly east of the Iron Curtain, there was extremely little restitution or compensation of any kind until the modern era. The Washington Principles and Terezin Declaration (and ongoing negotiations concerning real property) demand re-examination of claims.

The cause of anti-Semitism in eastern Europe does not lie with any survivor or heir seeking his or her own property. When Jews returned to their home towns in Poland after the war, for example, hoping to begin life there again in their own homes, they were met with incredible anti-Semitism and violence. This is largely what drove them out. In addition, there was (what most will call) civil war, rampant gun running and lawlessness. The Jews seeking to collect what little remained of their lives and assets did not cause the anti-Semitism; they were victims of it yet again.

Finally, I do not find the Herzog's media campaign to be distasteful. Often, the difference between a family getting restitution or not is the level of exposure placed on the present-day possessor of the assets. There is no shame in the dark, it seems.

Additionally, it is important to let people know about the magnitude of this scandal and that there is nothing shameful about getting one's property back and then doing with it what one pleases like everyone else does with their assets. One family was criticized in national and international media for keeping a settlement confidential after going to court, which is almost the converse of the criticism here. Other Jews were criticized in national and international media for auctioning restituted art. When litigation costs and fees need to be paid and the heirs are multiple and living in relatively modest circumstances, are they supposed to tear up multi-million dollar paintings to hang on their walls or hold a huge collection of armor in their apartments and install security systems?

Posted by: Jen Kreder | Jul 29, 2010 10:26:45 AM

The Herzogs did not mention that they already got restitution from the Communist Hungarian government. Now they say that was not OK.

The problem with the Herzogs distasteful media campaign, that it increased anti-Semitism in Hungary, there are 100 thousand poor Jews there.

Posted by: geo | Jul 29, 2010 2:01:22 AM

P.S.: Here is a web site explaining the heirs' position in the case: http://www.hungarylootedart.com/.

Posted by: Jen Kreder | Jul 28, 2010 12:30:40 PM

Hi Derek. I'll shoot you the complaint in a minute. Meanwhile, like I said in Amelia at the ARCA conference, I had been giving museums and present-day possessors the benefit of the doubt since 1998. Like you, I often assumed that "surely" there must be some principled reason to refuse to return property taken under the most villainous of circumstances. This echoes in a sense the thought process of those Jews who remained in the Reich after 1933 and simply could not believe the evil tales they heard. Some museums and countries have demonstrated solidly that they do not deserve that deference. The restitution record of Hungary, Poland and Russia is unbelievably bad. It is that simple. They earned their reputations. I'm sure you're familiar with Spoils of War, the book edited by Elizabeth Simpson. Very little has changed since then in Hungary and most of eastern Europe. FYI - the Commission for Art Recovery supports the Herzog heirs' claims.

Posted by: Jen Kreder | Jul 28, 2010 12:24:23 PM

Jen -

As I wrote on my blog this morning, reading Vogel's account, we are left wondering why exactly Hungary has refused to work with the claimants. It appears these heirs 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).

Posted by: Derek Fincham | Jul 28, 2010 12:10:21 PM

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