A lawsuit filed in Manhattan’s State Supreme Court on Wednesday by a Swiss resident — according to which the only El Greco painting to be displayed on Crete had been looted from Hungary by the Nazis — is groundless, a senior official at New York’s Metropolitan Museum said on Thursday, according to an Associated Press report. “This painting was not looted by the Nazis at all,” Harold Holzer reportedly said. “It was taken by the Soviets and sold back to the (Hungarian Hatvany) family which kept it until they sold it,” he added. The painting is now back in Crete.
The suit was rejected under a federal statute that says a lawsuit cannot be used to seize or control a cultural object brought into this country by a nonprofit institution like a museum for temporary exhibition. In recent years numerous lawsuits have been filed to recover paintings looted during World War II. But this may be one of the most convoluted cases because of conflicting theories about who looted it and who owned it after the war.
In addition, the lawsuit was not filed by an heir of the painting’s onetime owner, but by the son of an Austrian lawyer, now deceased, who once represented the owner’s family. “We know it was stolen at the end of the war,” said Konstantin Akinsha, a researcher in Washington who specializes in looted art. “We just don’t know by whom.”
“Mount Sinai” (1570-72) is an oil and tempera depiction of the peaks of Mount Sinai and a small group of pilgrims greeting a figure resembling John the Baptist.
There is no dispute that Baron Ferenc Hatvany purchased the work in the 1920’s and deposited it and other paintings in a Budapest bank during the war for safekeeping. Many of those paintings were looted at the war’s end and dispersed throughout Europe. The lawsuit claimed that the El Greco was taken by retreating Germans.
But research gathered by the Met indicated that the painting might have been stolen not by Germans but by Russians.