Updated at 3:14 p.m.
A Washington federal judge ruled late Thursday that the descendants of Baron Mor Lipot Herzog, a wealthy Jewish Hungarian art collector, can sue the Hungarian government for the return of art seized by Hungarian officials and the Nazis during World War II.
In denying (PDF) the bulk of Hungary's motion to dismiss, U.S. District Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle found that Herzog's heirs offered "substantial and non-frivolous" claims that Hungarian officials at the time violated international law in taking the paintings, meaning the Hungarian government is not immune against litigation under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act.
Governments are given wide berth 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 already been stripped away under anti-Semitic laws in effect at the time.
Hungary’s other arguments for dismissing the lawsuit included invoking the act of state doctrine, which prevents U.S. courts from passing judgment on the public acts of foreign governments. Huvelle wrote that when it comes to the actions of Nazi Germany and its allies during World War II, the courts have consistently ruled that this statute doesn’t apply.
Huvelle did grant Hungary a partial dismissal on claims to 11 of the more than 40 pieces of art in question, on the grounds that a Hungarian court had already issued a ruling that the government was entitled to keep those paintings.
Michael Shuster of New York’s Kasowitz, Benson, Torres & Friedman, who is representing Herzog’s heirs, said in a statement that he was pleased with the ruling.
"The Court’s decision rightfully rejects Hungary’s attempts to avoid dealing with the merits of this case, which overwhelmingly favor the Plaintiffs," Shuster said. "We look forward to proceeding with discovery of the Hungarian government’s shameful conduct in taking and refusing to return the family’s artworks.”
Thaddeus Stauber of Nixon Peabody, an attorney for the Republic of Hungary, said in an e-mail that he was pleased the court recognized Hungary’s claim to 11 of the paintings, based on the previous ruling from the Hungarian court.
"As the district court recognized the fairness and legitimacy of the Hungarian courts, we expect as the case proceeds that the Republic of Hungary's rightful ownership of the remaining artworks will likewise be confirmed,” he said.” We also anticipate asking the appellate court to acknowledge that the various international agreements and compensation programs long ago resolved any claims."
According to the complaint (PDF), Herzog's heirs had unsuccessfully tried to hide the art collection after Hungary allied with Nazi Germany. The collection was discovered and handed over to the Hungarian government. The complaint notes that before the art was turned over, high-ranking Nazi official Adolph Eichmann first selected several pieces as personal "trophies."
The plaintiffs in the case are three of Herzog's great-grandchildren, who are suing on behalf of all of his heirs.