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Southland man carries on quest to recover art taken in Holocaust

Southland man carries on quest to recover art taken in Holocaust
David de Csepel with a copy of an El Greco work his great-grandfather possessed.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

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.”

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“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.

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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.

In 1989, with the collapse of the communist government, Elizabeth made contact with Hungarian officials to pursue the return of the art. She recovered only a few works by little-known artists.

After her death in 1992, her daughter, Nierenberg, David’s aunt, took up the quest. She was also based in New York, where she was one of the founders of the Scandinavian design firm Dansk. When negotiations failed, she brought suit in 1999 in Hungary. One court agreed to return 10 of the 11 paintings she was seeking, but the Hungarian supreme court vacated that decision, bouncing the suit back to a lower court.

As the case dragged on, Nierenberg pursued a political campaign as well as her legal one, lobbying members of Congress to apply diplomatic pressure.

“We did both because we weren’t sure of the best way to recover the art,” said De Csepel, who described his role as one of support.

One ally was Hillary Rodham Clinton, then a U.S. senator from New York. She and other members of Congress sent a letter to the Hungarian minister of foreign affairs in 2007 urging her to return the artworks: “Many wrongs of the Holocaust can never, ever be undone. This one can be,” they wrote.

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When the minister brought up the $210,000 settlement, Clinton and team wrote back to dispute that amount and its relevance, noting that the 1959 payment was actually $169,827, covered real estate as well as artwork and only covered losses after Elizabeth became a U.S. national in 1952, not her wartime losses. But a Hungarian appellate court soon dismissed Nierenberg’s claim for those 11 artworks anyway.

“It became clear we were not going to see justice done in Hungary,” said De Csepel. “We tried and tried, but Hungary has been stonewalling my family for years.”

Now, Hungary’s strategy is mainly jurisdictional. Stauber has argued that treaties set up to handle wartime reparations, such as a 1947 peace treaty with Hungary, take precedence over the FSIA.

Stauber said that nobody is disputing the horrors of the Holocaust, but that “the question is: Where is the proper place for issues of compensation to be heard and addressed? Our position is that because of the [1947] treaty, the proper place would be through the International Court of Justice or else, with individual private property claims, Hungarian courts.”

De Csepel’s lawyer, Michael Shuster in New York, argues that U.S. courts should be allowed to hear this case, though he acknowledged that he is entering new territory. “There’s a lot of case law in the area of sovereign immunity, but the law relating to suing a foreign government that participated on the Axis side in World War II is still developing,” he said.

One point of dispute is whether the Herzog heirs were Hungarian citizens during the time of property seizure, in which case it could be considered an “act of state” not subject to international law. Stauber says they were. Shuster says no, because they were stripped of their rights by Hungarian anti-Jewish laws.

Not in dispute, for now anyway, is Baron Herzog’s ownership of the artworks. It was well documented in photographs, books and in the museums themselves, although De Csepel says the plaques bearing the Herzog name were missing from the paintings the next time he visited the museum.

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So why haven’t these paintings been returned? L.A. lawyer Schoenberg says it’s a question of intent. “Eastern European countries like Hungary have not done even close to an adequate job with regards to restitution.

“It’s a political issue. You don’t get any votes for being friendly to Jews and putting property back into Jewish hands in these countries,” he said.

After successfully arguing the Altmann case all the way to the Supreme Court, Schoenberg entered into arbitration in Austria to resolve the matter. Altmann was in her late 80s and, he said, “We knew it could take extremely long to litigate.”

Age is also playing a role in the Herzog case. It’s one of the reasons De Csepel was tapped as lead plaintiff in 2010 instead of Nierenberg, 88, or his father, 76.

“Let’s face it: My aunt, my father, the youngest generation that survived the Holocaust, are now in their last years. My desire is to see justice done in their lifetime,” De Csepel said.

jori.finkel@latimes.com

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