The Manhattan District Attorney’s office recently coordinated the return of seven Egon Schiele works to the heirs of a Jewish art collector who was killed at a concentration camp in 1941.
All seven of the Schiele drawings and paintings were given back to Fritz Grünbaum’s heirs during a ceremony at the New York Supreme Civil Court on September 20.
“Today is historic and groundbreaking,” Manhattan District Attorney Alvin L. Bragg said at the press conference, which he noted had occurred ahead of Yom Kippur, one of the most important Jewish high holidays.
The value of each of the Austrian Expressionist works returned on September 20 is estimated to be between $780,000 and $2.75 million, according to the New York Times, which first reported the story.
The seven works were previously held by two private collectors—the late Serge Sabarsky and World Jewish Congress president Ronald S. Lauder—and several museums, including the Museum of Modern Art, the Morgan Library & Museum, and the Santa Barbara Museum of Art.
The returns were the result of an investigation by the Manhattan district attorney’s office, who were approached by Grünbaum’s heirs in December. The heirs were emboldened to do so by a 2018 ruling that saw collector Richard Nagy give back two Schiele works. Nagy had planned to sell the artworks, but Judge Charles V. Ramos ruled that Grünbaum could not have voluntarily sold them and that he had signed away his title while interned at a concentration camp.
The heirs asked the Manhattan DA’s office to look into other Schiele works formerly owned by Grünbaum that were in New York or had been bought and sold by American art dealer Otto Kallir. These works, they believed, could constitute stolen property, as defined under New York law.
For more than 25 years, Grünbaum’s heirs have argued that he and his wife were forced to sell his assets and large art collection during his internment at Dachau.
According to the court filing against MoMA, Jewish Property Declaration documents show evidence that 81 artworks from Grünbaum’s collection had passed through Nazi ownership.
MoMA surrendered the watercolor and pencil on paper work Prostitute (1912), and the watercolor and charcoal on paper work Girl Putting on Shoe (1910). The Santa Barbara Museum returned the pencil on paper drawing Portrait of the Artist’s Wife, Edith (1915). The Morgan Library surrendered the black chalk and watercolor image on brown paper Self-Portrait (1910).
Lauder returned the watercolor and pencil on paper work I Love Antithesis (1912). The Sabarsky estate gave back two gouache, watercolor and pencil on paper works: Portrait of a Boy (Herbert Reiner), from 1910, and Seated Woman (1911).
“This is of huge importance in our world,” Grünbaum heir Timothy Reif told the New York Times in reference to the long-term pursuit of looted items by the descendants of Holocaust victims, eight decades after the end of World War II. “It sets the tone and the agenda for all future cases.”
The Times reported that the three museums and two collectors signed agreements with the DA’s office stating that “pursuant to a criminal investigation” into “Nazi looted art,” they gave up all claims to the works.
Last year, civil suits were filed in New York Supreme Court about these seven artworks, but the lawyer for the heirs, Raymond Dowd, told the Times those cases had been dismissed.
There are plans for Christie’s in New York to auction at least six of the returned works later this year. Reif, a judge on the United States Court of International Trade, told the Times that the proceeds would fund the newly formed Grünbaum Fischer Foundation and would help establish a scholarship program for young musicians.
It’s worth noting that, according to the Manhattan DA’s office, the most highly valued work of the returned Schieles was I Love Antithesis, which the office said was worth $2.75 million. This is a fraction of the record set for the artist at auction at Sotheby’s in London in 2011, when Hauser mit bunter Wasche (Vorstadt II), 1914, sold for £24.7 million ($40.1 million).
The two other heirs are David Fraenkel, a co-trustee of Grünbaum’s estate, and Milos Vavra. Reif told the Times that Grünbaum was his paternal grandfather’s first cousin.
The press conference followed the issuance of warrants from the Manhattan DA’s office earlier this month for three other artworks by Schiele at the Art Institute of Chicago, the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh, and the Allen Memorial Art Museum at Oberlin College.