Seven Egon Schiele Artworks Have Been Returned to the Heirs of a Jewish Collector in a Precedent-Setting Move

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Seven artworks by Austrian artist Egon Schiele have been returned to the heirs of their former owner, Fritz Grünbaum, who was forced to sign over his collection while detained at a concentration camp during World War II. 

The transfer, which took place this afternoon at a ceremony organized by the office of Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, marks an important turning point in the Grünbaum descendants’ now decades-long fight to have these and other Schieles restituted. The move could also have major implications for other cases involving Nazi-looted art. 

The works turned over today were among the 80-some Schiele pieces once owned by Grünbaum, a Jewish collector and cabaret performer deported to Germany’s Dachau concentration camp in 1938. There, Grünbaum’s heirs argue, he was forced sign a power of attorney and surrender his collection. The artworks were subsequently parceled off and sold to benefit the Nazi Party. Grünbaum died at Dachau in 1941.

“Fritz Grünbaum was a man of incredible depth and spirit, and his memory lives on through the artworks that are finally being returned to his relatives,” District Attorney Bragg said in a statement. “I hope this moment can serve as a reminder that despite the horrific death and destruction caused by the Nazis, it is never too late to recover some of what we lost, honor the victims, and reflect on how their families are still impacted to this day.”  

Watch live as D.A. Bragg announces the return of seven pieces of Nazi-looted art to relatives of a Holocaust victim: https://t.co/f9jFnTHxXl

— Alvin Bragg (@ManhattanDA) September 20, 2023

Four of the seven pieces were voluntarily relinquished by three institutions: the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), the Morgan Library & Museum, and the Santa Barbara Museum of Art (SBMA). Ronald Lauder, a billionaire and president of the World Jewish Congress, abdicated ownership to another piece, while the trust of prominent collector Serge Sabarsky turned in two more.

Until recently, the cases involving these and other Schiele pieces were the subject of civil, not criminal litigation.  

David Fraenkel and Timothy Reif, Grünbaum’s heirs and co-trustees of his estate, as well as another descendent, Milos Vavra, have previously filed lawsuits against collectors, dealers, and arts institutions they say own pieces stolen from their relative. The complaints against MoMA, the Morgan, and the SBMA were submitted last December. 

Egon Schiele, Portrait of the Artist’s Wife, Edith (1915). Courtesy of the Santa Barbara Museum of Art.

Per a report from the New York Times, the plaintiffs approached the D.A.’s office around the same time. Fraenkel, Reif, and Vavra pointed out that many of Grünbaum’s Schiele drawings had once passed through the hands of a Manhattan dealer Otto Kallir, giving Bragg’s team the legal right to intervene. 

The D.A.’s office is now investigating at least a dozen Schiele pieces once owned by Grünbaum. Last week, prosecutors seized three other Schiele works from the Art Institute of Chicago, the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh, and the Allen Memorial Art Museum at Oberlin College, respectively. 

In a statement, Reif said that Bragg’s office has “succeeded in solving crimes perpetrated over 80 years ago. Their righteous and courageous collaboration in the pursuit of justice—unique among prosecutors and law enforcement in this entire nation, if not the world—shine a bright light for all to follow.” 

Reif added that he and the other heirs “look forward to the District Attorney’s continued fairness, objectivity, and fearless pursuit of justice in conducting this criminal investigation.” 

At least six of the Schieles are expected to be put up for auction at Christie’s later this year, the reported. Proceeds will go to the newly-created Grünbaum Fischer Foundation and be used to establish a scholarship program for young musicians.

 

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