Martha Nierenberg, entrepreneur who sought art's return, dies at 96

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Martha Nierenberg, entrepreneur who sought art's return, dies at 96
Martha Nierenberg at her home in Armonk, N.Y., Jan. 11, 2008. Nierenberg, who achieved major success as an entrepreneur when she and her husband founded the Dansk Designs housewares company, which reimagined and invigorated the American tabletop, died in her sleep on June 27 at a senior living facility in Rye, N.Y., according to her family. She was 96. Joyce Dopkeen/The New York Times.

by Tom Mashberg

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Martha Nierenberg had barely turned 20 when she was bundled off a train in central Hungary and hidden by nuns in a Roman Catholic hospital. It was March 1944, and a Nazi occupying force that included Adolf Eichmann was marching into her home city, Budapest. Eichmann, a principal engineer of the Holocaust, would immediately embark on the annihilation of 500,000 Hungarian Jews.

Nierenberg, who was born into one of Hungary’s wealthiest families, evaded capture for two months before friends assured her that she could venture home. There she learned that she would be among 42 family members and close associates who were to be driven by the Germans to the Austrian border and, several weeks later, allowed to escape to Switzerland or Portugal.

The cost of life was high. The Nazis strong-armed the family into signing away their estates, including some 2,500 pieces of precious art. And Nierenberg’s father, Alfons Weiss de Csepel, was among five relatives who were forced to stay behind as hostages of the Third Reich.

A trained biochemist who spoke six languages, Nierenberg made it to the United States with her mother in 1945. She set off on a career as a scientist and researcher at MIT and the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research in New York, and then as an entrepreneur. She achieved major success when, in 1954, she and her husband, Theodore Nierenberg, founded the Dansk Designs housewares company, which re-imagined and invigorated the American tabletop.

Nierenberg died in her sleep June 27 in Rye, New York, according to her family. She was 96.

At her death she was a lead plaintiff in a 30-year Holocaust art restitution battle with Hungary that counts as one of the highest-value cases ever pursued by a single family. Among the 40 paintings Hungary has refused to return are four by El Greco and others by Corot, Velázquez and Courbet. Her trustee, her granddaughter Robin Bunevich, estimates that the collection is worth $100 million. She said the family would continue to press the case.

In a 2019 interview for her memoirs, Nierenberg spoke of growing up surrounded by the confiscated masterpieces and other fine art objects, ancient sculptures and pre-Renaissance furniture and rugs, many of which had been expropriated by Eichmann himself.

“We love these paintings,” she said. “We would dearly like to have something back.”

Martha Weiss de Csepel was born in Budapest on March 12, 1924, a granddaughter of Baron Mor Lipot Herzog, one of Europe’s premier art and antiquities collectors. Her paternal grandfather, Manfred Weiss de Csepel, had built the Manfred Weiss Steel and Metal Works, Hungary’s largest machine factory, which employed 40,000 people and pumped out trucks, washing machines and other items, including munitions. Once the Nazis seized control, they converted the works entirely into a factory for weapons and war machinery.

Martha’s mother, Erzsebet Herzog Weiss de Csepel, held a medical degree and had studied psychiatry in Vienna. She saw to it that Martha and her two brothers and a sister received advanced educations. Jewish by birth, Martha was nonetheless sent to a Calvinist school, where she could focus on science and math. After graduation she enrolled in a science college in Budapest.

Despite enduring frightening moments, Nierenberg was well aware that her family’s wealth and prestige had insulated them from the worst horrors of the Nazi genocide.

“Our family was really less touched by what was happening,” she recalled. “But my friends were in trouble,” she added. “I had a number of friends who were poured into labor camps. Everybody was in hiding.”

Her mother and two of her mother’s brothers had inherited the Herzog art collection and chateau upon Baron Herzog’s death in 1934. During the upheaval of 1944, they hid as much of the works as possible in bomb shelters, salt mines and the basement of the Weiss factory.

Most of the masterworks were ferreted out by collaborators and delivered to Eichmann’s headquarters at the Majestic Hotel in Budapest. He earmarked a few dozen paintings for Berlin and handed the rest to the Hungarian National Gallery and Budapest Museum of Fine Arts, which hold them to this day. Hundreds of items remain unaccounted for.

Nierenberg and her mother never lost sight of recovering their artistic birthright, but they were also intent on establishing their new lives in New York. Martha set out to complete her science degree, moving for a time to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to study at Radcliffe and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

She met Ted Nierenberg, a Manhattanite and the owner of a metal finishing company, at the Broadway premiere of “Guys and Dolls” in November 1950. They married the following year, moved to Great Neck, on Long Island, and had four children, Lisa, Karin, Peter and Al, all of whom survive their mother. Nierenberg died in 2009 at 86.

Eager to start a new business, the Nierenbergs toured Europe in 1954 to seek out industrial items for the American market. In Copenhagen, they discovered the work of the Danish designer Jens Quistgaard, who was well-known in Europe for his sleek, elegant everyday flatware.

Enraptured by the Scandinavian modern style, Nierenberg barged into Quistgaard’s studio that very day and proposed that they go into business together. As Nierenberg recalled, “Ted was often impulsive, and I had to go along with his antics.”

So began a 30-year partnership that saw Dansk extend well beyond cutlery into silverware and tableware; saucepans and casserole dishes made of enamel-coated steel; glazed stoneware; wine glasses; and pitchers, bowls and pepper mills made from exotic woods. With Quistgaard as chief designer and Nierenberg as head of marketing, the brand achieved international success by taking aim at high-end buyers with slogans like “Expensive … by Design.”

The Nierenbergs, by then living in an expansive glass and timber home surrounded by woodlands in Armonk, New York, retired in 1985 and sold the company and its 31 retail stores to their employees. Dansk is now owned by Lenox China.

With the opening of Hungary to the West in 1989, Nierenberg and the other Herzog heirs, spearheaded by David L. de Csepel of Los Angeles, a grandson of Erzsebet Herzog Weiss de Csepel, reached out to the authorities in their homeland hoping for an amicable agreement on the art. But despite help from Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts and Frank R. Lautenberg of New Jersey, they were rebuffed.

The family took their case to the Hungarian court system in the mid-2000s, but after several years of rulings they found no relief. So in 2010, with funding from the billionaire philanthropist Ronald S. Lauder, they filed suit in United States District Court for the District of Columbia, where the case has faced a welter of procedural and technical claims ever since.

“It would be so simple for the government to make this right, but our struggle goes on,” Nierenberg said in 2019. Ruefully, she added, “I guess they’re hoping they can wait me out.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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