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How do you sue a foreign country? Ask Herzog heirs seeking return of Nazi-looted art from Hungary

July 29, 2010 |  2:08 pm

Courbet
One fascinating fact about the restitution lawsuit filed in U.S. courts this week by the heirs of Jewish art collector Mór Lipót Herzog, who are seeking the return of over 40 artworks they've identified as looted during World War II, appears on the very first page of the complaint.

The suit names the Republic of Hungary itself as the lead defendant, followed by nationally operated museums that house the artworks in question. In interviews, Herzog’s heirs have also identified the Hungarian government, as opposed to, say, a particular museum or weak international laws, as their obstacle to obtaining justice and recovering paintings like this Courbet landscape, above. (A website just published by the family is not accidentally called hungarylootedart.)

The family says that several years before pursuing this lawsuit, they received promises of restitution from Hungarian government officials that were never realized. “We talked to members of the government -- I can’t say who,” says lead plaintiff David de Csepel, “and they said: 'Don’t worry, we’re going to get this resolved.'”
He is now not so trusting. “It’s reprehensible how this art was acquired by Hungary; it’s even more reprehensible they are not doing everything they can about it.”

So what do Hungarian officials have to say on the case? Andras Szorenyi, the press officer at the Hungarian Embassy in Washington, says, “The ambassador is not available for commenting on the lawsuit.”

Is anyone else willing to speak? “Our official position, given the state of the issue, is that nobody is commenting on the issue for the moment,” said Szorenyi, explaining that he has been following the case in the press, but has yet to receive any information from the government of Hungary about it.

One possible factor: It's not quite as easy to serve papers on a country as it is to serve, say, a deadbeat tenant at home. The plaintiff’s lawyer, Michael S. Shuster, confirms that Hungary has not yet been formally served with the lawsuit. He says the first step will be to translate the claim into Hungarian and deliver it to the Hungarian Ministry of Justice and Law Enforcement in Budapest. After that point, the country will have 60 days to respond to the complaint per the U.S. Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act.

Click here for more on the heirs' quest to recover Herzog's paintings.

-- Jori Finkel

twitter.com/jorifinkel

Image: Le Chateau de Blonay by Gustave Courbet. Courtesy Herzog Family Archive.

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