US Investigators Move to Seize Three Egon Schiele Works from Museums on Claims From Jewish Heirs of Stolen Property

The Manhattan District Attorney’s office recently issued warrants for three artworks by Egon Schiele on the claim they had been stolen from a Jewish art collector that was killed during the Holocaust.

The warrants were issued to the Art Institute of Chicago, the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh, and the Allen Memorial Art Museum at Oberlin College. New York prosecutors are arguing the artworks by Schiele from these institutions belong to the three living heirs of Fritz Grünbaum, who was forced to liquidate his assets during his internment at the Dachau concentration camp in Germany.

According to the New York Times, which first reported the news Wednesday, Grünbaum was a prominent Jewish art collector and cabaret artist who was eventually killed at Dachau in 1941. Before his internment, Grünbaum’s art collection grew to nearly 500 pieces, with with at least 80 works by Schiele.

The warrants were for the watercolor-and-pencil drawing on paper Russian War Prisoner (1916) from the Art Institute of Chicago; the pencil-on-paper drawing Portrait of a Man (1917) from the Carnegie Museum of Art; as well as the watercolor-and-pencil on paper work Girl With Black Hair (1911) from Oberlin’s Allen Memorial Art Museum.

According to the New York Times, all the works were valued between $1 million and $1.5 million, and will be transported to New York at a later date.

The Art Institute of Chicago and Oberlin College confirmed to ARTnews that the Manhattan District Attorney’s office has moved to seize the Schiele works “in place”, which means Russian War Prisoner and Girl With Black Hair currently remain in custody at each museum for the time being.

“We are confident in our legal acquisition and lawful possession of this work,” said the Art Institute of Chicago in a statement to ARTnews. “The piece is the subject of civil litigation in federal court, where this dispute is being properly litigated and where we are also defending our legal ownership”

“We are confident that Oberlin College legally acquired Egon Schiele’s Girl with Black Hair in 1958, and that we lawfully possess it. We are cooperating with the Manhattan District Attorney’s criminal investigation,” Oberlin College spokesperson Andrea Simakis wrote in an email statement to ARTnews. “We believe that Oberlin is not the target of the Manhattan DA’s criminal investigation into this matter.”

“Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh is deeply committed to our mission of preserving the resources of art and science by acting in accordance with ethical, legal, and professional requirements and norms. We will of course cooperate fully with inquiries from the relevant authorities,” the museum said in a statement to ARTnews.

The three Schiele artworks were being contested in civil court, but the Holocaust recovery cases now shift to criminal court as a result of the seizure warrants from the Manhattan DA’s office.

The three heirs of Grünbaum also recently dropped their claim against the Santa Barbara Museum of Art over another pencil-on-paper sketch by Schiele. The lawsuit over the 1915 pencil drawing Portrait of an Artist’s Wife—a gift to the museum by one of its founders—was filed in December last year.

Museum spokesperson Katrina Carl told the Santa Barbara Independent, which first reported the news, that she was unable to speak about the case. “Things surrounding this matter are in process, and we should be able to make a statement when all is resolved,” she said.

The Manhattan District Attorney’s Office is now also involved in the dispute at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, but the office’s press secretary declined to comment to the Santa Barbara Independent.