David de Csepel with a copy of an El Greco work his great-grandfather possessed. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles…)
During World War II, Nazis and Hungarian collaborators looted major artworks from the vast collection of Jewish banker Baron Mór Lipót Herzog. His great-grandson David de Csepel is on a quest to get them back.
De Csepel first saw some of these paintings almost two decades ago in the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest, where Herzog had lived. Plaques identified works by El Greco and Zurbarán as "from the Herzog Collection."
"It was very strange seeing paintings that were stolen from my family hanging in the museum with my great-grandfather's name on these plaques — unsettling, to say the least," said De Csepel, a 46-year-old real estate developer who lives in Altadena.
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He is now the lead plaintiff in what art experts say could be the last great Holocaust-era art restitution case, the subject of a hearing Wednesday in a federal appellate court in Washington, D.C.
In 2010 De Csepel, representing some two dozen relatives, filed suit in federal court against the government of Hungary, three of its museums and a university, seeking the return of more than 40 artworks valued at $100 million.
"Hungary intends to fully engage and participate in all the legal proceedings and expects to be declared owner of all artworks," said Thaddeus Stauber, a Los Angeles attorney representing the Hungarian government. At Wednesday's court hearing, he is expected to argue that U.S. courts have no right to adjudicate the matter.
De Csepel's attorneys dispute that, contending that Hungary can be sued in U.S. courts under conditions established by the 1976 Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act. In 2011, a federal judge agreed to let the suit proceed for all but 11 of the artworks already considered by Hungarian courts. Those courts ruled that Herzog's descendants don't have a legal claim to the artworks, as a settlement had already been made.
Hungary's lawyers appealed the 2011 judgment on jurisdictional issues, and lawyers for De Csepel counter-appealed to bring the 11 artworks back into play.
In addition to deciding the fate of the Herzog collection, the case could also help set precedent for suing a foreign government in U.S. courts.
Los Angeles lawyer E. Randol Schoenberg, who sued Austria under FSIA for the return of five Gustav Klimt paintings on behalf of Holocaust survivor Maria Altmann, called the current suit "extremely important."
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"There's still plenty of looted art out there," he said. "But I don't know of any other collection that is this large and valuable."
At his home in Altadena, De Csepel spoke recently about his family's decades-long quest to recover the artwork. The task has been taken up by three generations — first the baron's daughter Elizabeth Weiss de Csepel; then her daughter, Martha Nierenberg; and now De Csepel.
The great-grandson described Herzog's passion for art. At one point, the banker owned nearly 2,500 artworks and art objects, heavy in Old Masters like Velázquez, El Greco and Lucas Cranach the Elder as well as 19th century greats like Renoir, Monet and Courbet.
Herzog and his wife died before the war, and De Csepel's grandmother Erzsebét, or Elizabeth, and her two brothers inherited the artworks. One brother, András, was sent into forced labor and never returned.
According to De Csepel, Elizabeth was at home in Budapest on March 19, 1944, when the Gestapo came to the door. They shot the family dog, then seized not just artworks but the massive iron and steel manufacturing enterprise founded by her father-in-law, Manfred Weiss. They took over the factories for the production of wartime munitions and held Elizabeth's husband hostage to continue to run them, which helped to ensure his family's survival.
Though most family members were able to flee to safety, the artworks were looted and dispersed. Some works were taken by the Hungarian government collaborating with the Nazis. Others were seized by Nazis — Adolf Eichmann reportedly requested particular Herzog pieces for his own collection. The invading Red Army absconded with others that remain in Russian museums.
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Elizabeth immigrated to the United States, and lived on the Upper East Side of New York while David was growing up in Connecticut. He remembers her apartment, where she hung black-and-white images of her father's paintings — cut from pages of art history books.
"The loss of artwork can't compare with the loss of human life, but she clearly found a great solace in these images," he said.
While Hungary was still a communist country, she did receive one form of compensation: an award of $210,000 in 1959 from the U.S. Foreign Claims Settlement Commission.