Martha Nierenberg was one of the lucky ones. When the Nazis invaded her native Hungary on March 19, 1944, "the whole family went into hiding with a friend in Budapest," she recalled. "By noon, they were looking for my father." Unlike others with Jewish backgrounds, she and most of her relatives soon escaped, including her father, Alfonz Weiss. The Weisses were so important economically -- employing 30,000 workers to make everything from airplanes and tanks to tin cans and needles -- that they bartered a 25-year lease on their factory for freedom. When they fled, they were escorted by police cars.
But Mrs. Nierenberg, now 74, also remembers what they left behind -- especially the mansion of her maternal grandfather, Baron Maurice Herzog, on Andrassy Boulevard, Budapest's Champs-Elysees. "It was like a museum, like the Frick," she said.
Many of those works, widely known as the Herzog Collection, now hang in Hungarian museums, where they were left for safekeeping during the war or placed after being stolen by the Nazis and later returned to Hungary.
She wants them back.
But Hungary, the latest in a string of countries whose national collections have been hit by individuals' claims for wartime plunder, seems torn. As a fledgling democracy just starting to make its way in the West, and as a country that itself is trying to reclaim looted art in Canada and Russia, including many other paintings from the Herzog Collection, it might be sympathetic. But its national politics and cultural aspirations are tugging in the opposite direction. Negotiations between the Nierenbergs' lawyers and Hungarian officials, which began in mid-1996 and went smoothly at first, broke down last winter, just as Hungary was gearing up for a national election in May.
Mrs. Nierenberg and her husband, Ted, who live in Armonk, N.Y., thought they had an agreement last fall on 21 of the 30 works they had so far claimed, including paintings by or attributed to El Greco, Cranach, Zurbaran and van Dyke. A team of experts from Sotheby's had valued the batch at $8 million to $14.5 million. "We were slightly conservative," said George Wachter, the director of Sotheby's Old Master paintings department, partly because the works were viewed on museum walls and could not be studied closely.
Mr. Wachter called the Cranach and Zurbaran paintings "fantastic pictures," but said that the El Greco was best labeled "workshop of El Greco with the possible assistance of El Greco himself," and that a Velazquez was also probably misattributed. "It is a very beautiful, high-quality picture, and if we did more research, we might be able to go further," he said. "But we said it should be attributed to Juan Bautista Martinez del Mazo."
The Nierenbergs were willing to take back 60 percent of this group, and to forgo the rest in lieu of Hungarian taxes. But, they said, Hungarian officials soon reneged, proposing instead to study the case further. The two sides have had no contact for months, and neither agrees with the other's version of what happened.
"They're stalling," Mr. Nierenberg said. "I'm 75, and they think I'll lose interest, and it will go away." (The couple's four children have not focused on the quest.)
The Hungarians, however, differ. "They do have some claims, but we don't know how much," said Ivan Ronai, the director of the department of cultural heritage in the Culture Ministry. "Some paintings were clearly deposited at the museum for safekeeping. Some are less clear. We don't know how they got there." The Nierenbergs have no contracts proving anything, he said.
"The whole collection in Hungary should be handled as a package," he added. "But until we know the exact status of each painting, we are not in a position to bargain. That is why we suggested arbitration. We're waiting for them to come back, but they just refused."
Mr. Nierenberg said he and his wife would agree to international binding arbitration, but not the kind the Hungarians had in mind. "They said, 'We'll go to arbitration, but we pick three Hungarians and you pick three Hungarians,' " he said. "It was utterly ridiculous."
Instead, the Nierenbergs have decided to apply public pressure, despite an early agreement not to talk about the dispute. "The Hungarians said they wanted to get into NATO, and they didn't want any bad publicity," Mr. Nierenberg said. "And then the Government felt it would lose the election if it gave away national treasures."
But with Hungary's entry into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization seemingly assured, and with a new Hungarian Government in place, the Nierenbergs said going public was their best recourse, even though diplomats say the new regime is more nationalistic, less internationally minded than its predecessor.
The designated Minister for Preserving National Cultural Heritage, Jozsef Hamori, just learned of the issue. Donald Blinken, a former United States Ambassador to Hungary who remains interested in the case, raised it with him on a trip to Budapest in late June. Reminding Mr. Hamori that Hungary was the first former East bloc country to allocate funds to pay Holocaust survivors a monthly stipend, "I told him Hungary did it right once and ought to come to grips with this issue of art right away," Mr. Blinken said.
The new Government may also have a hard time taking a tough stance in light of Hungary's activities with Canada. A year ago, the Hungarian Culture Ministry quietly asked the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts to return "The Marriage Feast at Cana," by Giorgio Vasari, which was stolen from the Budapest Museum of Fine Arts during the war. The Montreal museum, which said the painting had been sold in 1961 by a state-owned store in Budapest and acquired later by the museum in good faith, responded that it had no obligation to return the painting. It proposed "co-ownership."
Hungary declined, and a lawyer for the Culture Ministry recently gave letters outlining the dispute to the press. One, to the museum's lawyers, dated Oct. 9, 1997, noted that when war losses were discovered in North American museums, "it has not been the practice to hide behind national laws," but that "a higher moral and ethical standard has systematically been applied."
The Nierenberg case is also complicated by the looted art held by the Russians. They intercepted many paintings stolen by the Nazis in Hungary as the works, including many from the Herzog Collection, were being shipped to Germany.
Over the years, Baron Herzog had donated some paintings to the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest, but he retained the bulk of the collection. When he died in 1935, followed by his wife in 1941, the collection was left mainly to his three children, one of whom was Martha Nierenberg's mother, Elizabeth. Elizabeth (who married Alfonz Weiss) later inherited the one-third share of her brother Steven, who died in 1966. The other third was inherited by a brother who died in a labor camp during the war and whose share fell to his Italian ex-wife and their two daughters.
Martha Nierenberg, as the oldest surviving heir of Elizabeth Weiss, said that she; her sister, Mary, and brother, John, were entitled to two-thirds of the Herzog Collection.
For years, no one in the family did anything about reclaiming the art. Much of the Herzog Collection, whose 1,500 to 2,500 pieces included decorative objects as well as paintings by Italian, Spanish and Dutch Old Masters and French Impressionists, has simply vanished. Besides, when the family sought compensation for its industrial losses right after the war, what it got was bunch of virtually worthless Hungarian coupons, Mrs. Nierenberg said.
"This precedent dampened the family's whole desire," Mr. Nierenberg said. "Why do anything for the art? We got bupkis for the real estate and the factory," he added, using a Yiddish term for nothing. The family did not know where the art was because of the Iron Curtain, and Mrs. Nierenberg said her mother downplayed the loss: "Her feeling always was, 'We were out, and it was fine.' "
But a few years ago, the Russians acknowledged that they held "trophy art" from the war in their museums and vaults. When they started to exhibit it, some pictures were even labeled "Herzog Collection." The Pushkin Museum in Moscow, for example, displayed "a big picture of El Greco's that was my mother's," Mrs. Nierenberg said. That changed the Nierenbergs' minds. They set their sights on Hungary because Russia has refused to give anything back.
That decision has not helped their cause with the Hungarians, who have been trying since 1991 to retrieve works from Russia. Minutes of the negotiating meetings with the Nierenbergs' lawyers show that the Hungarian officials have tried several times to shift the conversation to the works in Russia.
"The Hungarians said we should help them get the Herzog Collection back from Russia," Mr. Nierenberg said. "They think it belongs to them. If we get this settled, we might do something with the Russians."
But already, the Nierenbergs said, they have spent more than $50,000 on legal fees and on a curator they hired to prepare an inventory of the art they lost and to substantiate their claims that the paintings were left for safekeeping, not donated. Mr. Nierenberg, who with his wife founded Dansk Design, the upscale housewares maker, in 1954 and sold it in 1985 for about $20 million to Brown-Forman, said he was willing to spend another $100,000 on the claim.
New Government or not, it may not get easier. In recent months, there has been a telling change. Previously, "all these paintings in the museum in Budapest were identified as 'Herzog Collection,' " Mr. Nierenberg said. Now, Mr. Blinken and other witnesses said, those labels simply give the date of acquisition.
Photos: Martha and Ted Nierenberg (James Estrin/The New York Times); Zurbaran's "St. Andrew," part of Herzog Collection.