25 April 2011

The Herzog paintings—so close, and yet so far.

You might recall that in July 2010, the Commission for Art Recovery (CAR) filed a lawsuit in an American Federal Court against the government of the Republic of Hungary seeking the restitution of an extraordinary lot of priceless paintings owned by Baron Mor Lipot Herzog. These paintings, after having been nationalized, were distributed and displayed throughout major Hungarian museums instead of being returned to the Baron and his heirs, who are their rightful owners. The Hungarian government countered in February of this year by seeking the dismissal of the lawsuit.

As in so many of these art restitution cases involving losses suffered during the Holocaust, despoiled families had come very close, in the immediate postwar years, to being reunited with their stolen possessions. But, depending on who was interpreting international law on what day and in what Allied jurisdiction (French, American, British, or Soviet), the items in question were repatriated to different countries on the principle that they had to return to the country from which they had been stolen; restitution to the rightful owner was incumbent upon the postwar government of that nation.

In the case of some of Baron Herzog’s paintings, it appears that this is exactly what might have occurred. Presumably, a group of paintings which formed part of the looted collection of Baron Herzog had been comingled with works from the Hungarian National Museum. The lot had ended up in a small town in Bavaria called Dingolfing near Landshut. By late April 1947, the Herzog paintings, those from the Hungarian National Museum, and paintings belonging to the Manfred Weiss family were sent back to Hungary. Ironically, at the same time as these events transpired in Bavaria, officials from the US zone of Occupation in Austria were actively stalling delegates from the Hungarian Restitution Commission in their attempt to locate and claim Hungarian property brought into Austria by the retreating Nazis.

Sixty-four years later, the battle continues for the return of the Herzog paintings. Sadly, sixty-four years ago, some measure of justice might have occurred for the Herzogs, were it not for rigid interpretations of international law and the vagaries of the incipient Cold War.