U.S. Court of Appeals hears arguments regarding stolen Herzog artworks

Center for Art Law 4 February 2013
Image of Baron Herzog's study with El Greco paintings.  
On January 23, 2013, Judges David B. Sentelle, David S. Tatel and Stephen Fain Williams of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit heard oral arguments on appeal pertaining  to an important art restitution claim dating back to World War II. Originally, the case was brought by David de Csepel and other heirs of the famous Hungarian art collector Baron Mor Lipot Herzog, whose collection included paintings by van Dyck, Velazquez, El Greco and the Impressionists, was stolen by the Nazis during World War II. Some of the Herzog paintings are now housed in the Hungarian museums and the heirs are seeking possession of almost 50 such paintings with an alleged value of $100 million. 

In the 2011 decision, the District Court Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle granted in part defendants' motion to dismiss heirs' claims and denied recovery of 11 of the contested paintings. Then as now, attorneys for the Republic of Hungary argued that the claims were barred by the applicable statute of limitations, the act of state doctrine, the political question doctrine, and the doctrine of international comity.

The transcript of the oral arguments is not available yet. However, on appeal, attorneys for the Hungarian government allegedly argued that U.S. Courts lacked jurisdiction to hear the original claim. Attorneys for the appellees countered that U.S. court had jurisdiction to hear this claim not only because it concerned U.S. citizens but also because the Hungarian courts acted "unjustly" by denying legitimate return claims. From the original complaint, Hungary "has a long history of avoiding accepting responsibility for its acts of genocide during World War II and has consistently avoided any meaningful attempt to restitute property—and especially art—belonging to Hungarian Jews."

One of the intriguing but flawed arguments made by the lawyers for the government of Hungary last week was that the claim ought to be heard by the International Court of Justice (ICJ). However, as the Statute for the ICJ regarding competences of the Court reads, " Only states may be parties in cases before the Court." Chapter II, Article 34.

Chief Judge Sentelle has been quoted as asking repeatedly “What makes this an appropriate case for the courts of the United States?... Everything that happened, happened in Hungary, right?...We’re not a world court.” With the US efforts to offer alternative dispute resolution forum for Nazi-era looted art claims exhausted, American courts remain a popular forum to hear these cases as claimants seek just and fair solution more than seven decades after the theft.

Attorneys representing Appellants: Thaddeus J. Stauber and Emily Crandall Harlan, Nixon Peabody LLP.
Attorneys representing Appellees: Michael S. Shuster, Holwell Shuster & Goldberg LLP; Agnes Peresztegi; Alyssa T. Saunders.
Source: LA Times; Pacer; de Csepel v. Republic of Hungary, 808 F. Supp. 2d 113, 145 (D.D.C. 2011).
Image of Herzog's study from Hungary on Trial.
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