D.C. Circuit to Consider Case of Art Taken by Nazis

D.C. Circuit to Consider Case of Art Taken by Nazis

The Hungarian government is appealing the denial of its bid to dismiss a lawsuit filed by heirs to a Jewish Hungarian art collector demanding the return of art taken by the Nazis and Hungarian officials during World War II.

U.S. District Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle denied the bulk of the Hungarian government’s motion to dismiss on Sept. 1, finding that the descendants of Baron Mor Lipot Herzog could sue for the return of pieces of Herzog’s collection currently in the possession of Hungarian cultural institutions.

Attorneys for the Hungarian defendants filed notice (PDF) Monday that they intend to challenge Huvelle’s ruling before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

Nixon Peabody partner Thaddeus Stauber, lead counsel for the Hungarian government, said in a statement that his client anticipates “asking the U.S. appellate court to acknowledge that the relevant international agreements and compensation programs in Hungary and the U.S. long ago resolved any modern day claims to the remaining artworks.”

The Hungarian government had argued in its motion to dismiss that it already settled claims to art and other items taken during World War II over the last few decades, including the Herzog collection.

Huvelle did dismiss part of the heirs’ complaint, deferring to a previous ruling by a Hungarian court finding that 11 of the more than 40 pieces in question from the collection did belong to the Hungarian defendants, which include the Hungarian government as well as the Hungarian National Gallery, the Museum of Fine Arts, the Museum of Applied Arts and the Budapest University of Technology and Economics.

Michael Shuster of New York’s Kasowitz, Benson, Torres & Friedman, who is representing Herzog’s heirs, said Tuesday morning that “the issues that Judge Huvelle dealt with in her opinion are all well-grounded in…other precedents.”

“It’s unfortunate that they continue to want to avoid addressing the merits,” he said.

In the Sept. 1 opinion (PDF), Huvelle found that Herzog’s heirs offered “substantial and non-frivolous” claims that the Hungarian government violated international law in taking the paintings, meaning the Hungarian defendants are not immune against litigation under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act.

Governments are given wide breadth to take property from its citizens, Huvelle wrote, but in this case, the Hungarian government was accused to taking property from Jewish individuals whose citizenship rights had been stripped away under anti-Semitic laws in effect at the time.

According to the complaint (PDF), Herzog’s family had attempted to hide the collection, which included several thousand pieces, after Hungary allied with Nazi Germany, but it was discovered and seized. The plaintiffs in the case are three of Herzog’s great-grandchildren, who are suing on behalf of all of his heirs.

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