During his lifetime, the Jewish Baron Mór Lipót Herzog assembled an impressive collection of artworks from some of history’s most fabled artists, from
. Kept in the family home in Hungary, the collection was passed down after Herzog’s death in 1934. But later, as Nazi Germany exerted its influence, Hungary began passing laws dispossessing Jewish residents of their property.
The Herzog family attempted to safeguard their artwork, but it was eventually seized and some even sent to Holocaust architect Adolf Eichmann’s headquarters. After the war, a portion of the works were returned to the family in the form of short term loans, before, under “relentless harassment,” they gave the pieces to the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest.
Shortly thereafter, as the Iron Curtain fell and a communist government came to power in Hungary, it became impossible to investigate or adjudicate issues around the Herzog collection. But in 2010, David de Csepel and two other heirs filed suit in the United States seeking the return of the collection from Hungary. They faced numerous hurdles, among them the protracted delay in filing suit, whether the litigation should be in Hungarian courts, and, as always, the question of if American courts could intervene under FSIA. To boil down years of motions and appeals into a single sentence: the court found that the rise of a communist government had stopped the clock on the statute of limitations for bringing a claim and the plaintiffs didn’t have to exhaust local remedies before filing in the U.S.
But the decision in the Herzog case on the FSIA point proved especially important. If another government takes property from its own citizens within a national border, American courts view that as the decision of a sovereign government which they cannot overrule. Hungary argued that this is essentially what had happened with the Herzog works. But the plaintiffs asserted that the taking of the Herzog collection was a violation of international law.
Significantly, the courts agreed and found that targeting someone economically in what was the prelude to genocide is part of that genocide, which is itself a crime against international law. Thus, American courts can intervene. The case was allowed to proceed—though Hungary is appealing. Like so many others, this suit is likely to drag on, especially with a right wing government in Hungary unlikely to look for an amicable settlement.
In 1998, the Washington Conference produced a set of principles—including a shared commitment to “fair and just solutions”—for the return of Nazi looted art. The principles were agreed to by the 44 attending nations, Hungary included. So with this in mind, “why is Hungary resisting in this fashion?” asks O’Donnell in his book, citing a slew of other cases in which there is no doubt that paintings were taken by Nazis, but where institutions and governments assert legal reasons to hold onto the works. In a sense, the moral questions are not addressed, while legal questions are.
“Such answers are always couched in why one can keep the artwork,” writes O’Donnell, “but not whether one should keep it.”