How Geoffrey Hoguet ’68 is fulfilling the charitable spirit of his Rothschild forebears
Few bloodlines can fill so many historical volumes, the chapters bridging prosperity, loss, and reclamation.
But it was only recently that Geoffrey Hoguet ’68, a descendant of the Austrian branch of the Rothschild family, the venerated European banking dynasty, learned about an all-but-forgotten preamble in the story of his forebears and their philanthropic spirit.
He discovered that his great-grandfather, Albert Freiherr von Rothschild, had established an endowment in 1907 in Vienna to help the mentally ill, along with those suffering from neurological impairments. The foundation was named for Hoguet’s late great-uncle, Nathaniel Freiherr von Rothschild, whose wish was to create such an endowment. Its assets totaled the equivalent of 122 million euros.
Yet before the foundation could unlock its full potential, the Nazis rose to power and World War II broke out. The funds—like so many other assets belonging to prominent Jewish families throughout Europe—were expropriated and transferred to the city of Vienna.
Reminding the world about their existence and purpose has become a cause célèbre for Hoguet, who sued the city of Vienna in 2020 to restore the foundation’s independence and carry out its mission.
“This is a real landmark case,” says Hoguet, 71, an investor who holds both U.S. and Austrian citizenship. “We’re creating the case law.”
The vast majority of claims stemming from the Holocaust involve hidden bank accounts, stolen artwork, and other antiquities. The fate of the more than century-old charity constitutes new legal ground, according to Hoguet, who is trying to overcome a recent setback in the case after some early success.
“I accept it if we lose, but I want to make a big, big point here and demonstrate to the Austrian public and to others outside of the Austrian public that all is not well in Vienna in terms of restitution of foundations,” he says.
Suddenly, Hoguet became a preservationist for a nonprofit, one that he says still can play a key role in helping others but must overcome the scourge of anti-Semitism.
“That’s what drove me forward,” he says.
As someone who suffers from Parkinson’s disease, Hoguet gravitated to the cause. When his ancestors created the foundation, they set up a board to oversee its work whose members were appointed by the Rothschild family. Over the decades, Vienna officials abandoned that governance structure.
The city systematically sold off key pieces of the foundation’s real estate portfolio since World War II, including the sale in 2002 of a mental health clinic back to the city at below-market value, Hoguet says.
“The city of Vienna was self-dealing,” he says. “That was used to fund basically other administrative organs of the city of Vienna.”
A hospital bearing the Rothschild name ceased to exist in Vienna, the longtime home of Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis.
“There was no reference anywhere on the hospital grounds that gave the remotest hint that it was a Rothschild philanthropic effort that established all of this,” Hoguet says.
While the Rothschilds have been a source of exhaustive research, Hoguet says less study has been devoted to the Austrian branch of the family. He credited a friend with bringing the foundation’s existence to his attention in 2018. His relatives who might have known about the charity—his mother and grandmother—passed away decades ago.
“I had no idea about this foundation,” he says. “There’s been precious little written about the Austrian Rothschilds because precious little survived the war.”
This is not the first time that Hoguet has pressed European leaders for a reckoning. Over the past two decades, he pursued restitution from the Czech Republic for artwork that was stolen from the Rothschilds, and was successful in getting two paintings back from the National Gallery Prague. One of them, an oil painting of flowers in a stoneware vase by the Flemish painter Jan Brueghel the Elder, was returned in 2016 to the heirs of Baron Alphonse von Rothschild, Hoguet’s grandfather.
After its sale by auction house Sotheby’s, the proceeds helped to further fund the family’s restitution efforts in the Czech Republic.
“Many have gotten property and movable assets, namely paintings, back from the Czechs, but it is rare to be allowed to move them out of the country,” Hoguet says.
The process was an arduous one for Hoguet, who spent years lobbying Czech leaders to make restitution.
“It developed into a passion, much of which was talking and learning about the family’s history,” he says. “So it was a huge history lesson.”
—Neil Vigdor ’95