Hungary asks US court to reject looted art lawsuit

AP 16 February 2011
By Pablo Gorondi

The Hungarian government on Wednesday asked a U.S. court to dismiss a lawsuit by the heirs of a prominent Jewish collector who are seeking the return of art worth over $100 million seized during the Holocaust.

The Ministry of National Development said that the 2010 suit by the heirs of Baron Mor Lipot Herzog in Washington should be dismissed, in part because compensation for the 44 artworks was covered by a 1973 claims agreement between Hungary and the United States.

David de Csepel, Herzog's great grandson, and two other heirs sued Hungary and several state-owned museums seeking the return of works that included paintings by El Greco and Francisco de Zurbaran.

The ministry also said that in 2008 a Hungarian appeals court rejected a lawsuit filed in 1999 by De Csepel's aunt, Martha Nierenberg, and other heirs, also seeking restitution of the artworks.

Herzog died in 1934. His collection, which at its zenith may have grown to as many as 2,500 objects and numerous paintings from the Old Masters, including 10 by El Greco, was inherited by his three children after his wife's death in 1940.

With the onset of World War II and the persecution of the Herzogs and other Jews, the collection began to be dismantled. Some artworks were taken by the Nazis and Russia's Red Army, others may have been stolen and some were seized by Hungary's communist regime.

According to experts, Adolf Eichmann, who oversaw the deportation of over 400,000 Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz and other concentration camps, took some of the masterpieces for his own collection.

The art sought by the heirs is housed in Hungary's National Gallery and several Budapest institutions - the Museum of Fine Arts, the Museum of Applied Arts and the University of Technology and Economics.

A 16th century portrait by German painter and engraver Georg Pencz of businessman Sigismund Baldinger, which was restituted by Germany to Herzog's heirs last year, was sold in July at a Christie's auction for 5 million British pounds (then $8.56 million).
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