WASHINGTON -- A three-judge federal appellate court heard brief oral arguments Wednesday in what art experts say could be the last great Holocaust-era art restitution case, one with a California connection, but issued no ruling.
The unusual case was brought by heirs and relatives of a legendary Hungarian art collector in a dispute over possession of more than 40 artworks valued at $100 million -- including some paintings now hanging in Hungarian museums -- that were stolen by the Nazis during World War II.
The lead plaintiff is David de Csepel of Altadena, Calif., great-grandson of Jewish banker Baron Mór Lipót Herzog. His once vast collection included paintings, sculptures and other works by such artists as El Greco, van Dyck, Velázquez, Renoir and Monet.
Arguing that Hungarian courts acted unjustly by failing to return the paintings or pay restitution to Herzog’s relatives, the lawsuit seeks to use U.S. courts to press the claim against the government of Hungary, three of its museums and a university.
According to De Csepel, the Gestapo seized the Herzog collection and took over the family’s iron and steel factories in March 1944. Some artworks were taken by the Hungarian government collaborating with the Nazis. Other pieces were seized by Nazis — Adolf Eichmann reportedly sought Herzog pieces for his collection. The invading Soviet Army carried off others.
Lawyers for the government of Hungary argue that U.S. courts have no jurisdiction, insisting the case should be heard in Hungarian courts or the International Court of Justice.
David B. Sentelle, chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, put that question repeatedly Monday to Herzog family attorney Michael Shuster.
“What makes this an appropriate case for the courts of the United States?” Sentelle asked. “Everything that happened, happened in Hungary, right?...We’re not a world court.”
Shuster replied that some of the plaintiffs are U.S. citizens, that Hungary’s courts are problematic, and that U.S. law can govern international Holocaust claims.
“The U.S. has an interest in this case,” he said.