The Manhattan District Attorney’s office recently orchestrated a significant event, reuniting seven valuable artworks by Egon Schiele with the descendants of a Jewish art collector who tragically perished in a concentration camp in 1941.
In a historic ceremony held at the New York Supreme Civil Court on September 20th, all seven Schiele drawings and paintings were officially returned to the heirs of Fritz Grünbaum. During a press conference, Manhattan District Attorney Alvin L. Bragg highlighted the event’s significance, notably occurring just before the important Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur.
The New York Times estimates the worth of each of these Austrian Expressionist works, returned on September 20th, to be between $780,000 and $2.75 million. Previously, these seven artworks were in the possession of various private collectors, including the late Serge Sabarsky and Ronald S. Lauder, President of the World Jewish Congress, as well as several prestigious museums like the Museum of Modern Art, the Morgan Library & Museum, and the Santa Barbara Museum of Art.
Last year, civil lawsuits concerning these seven artworks were filed in New York Supreme Court. However, it has been confirmed by Raymond Dowd, a partner at the Dunnington Bartholow & Miller Law Firm who closely followed the proceedings, that these cases have since been dismissed.
This remarkable restitution effort stems from an investigation initiated by the Manhattan District Attorney’s office following a request from Grünbaum’s heirs in December. Their request was prompted by a 2018 legal ruling, which compelled collector Richard Nagy to return two Schiele works. The court determined that Grünbaum could not have willingly sold them and had signed away his ownership rights while interned in a concentration camp.
The heirs urged the Manhattan DA’s office to examine other Schiele works that had once belonged to Grünbaum and were either in New York or associated with American art dealer Otto Kallir. These works were suspected to be potentially stolen property under New York law.
For over 25 years, Grünbaum’s heirs have maintained that he and his wife were coerced into liquidating his assets and extensive art collection during his internment at Dachau.
Court documents presented as evidence, including Jewish Property Declaration records, indicate that 81 artworks from Grünbaum’s collection had passed through Nazi ownership.
As part of this significant restitution effort, MoMA returned two works: “Prostitute” (1912) and “Girl Putting on Shoe” (1910). The Santa Barbara Museum returned “Portrait of the Artist’s Wife, Edith” (1915), while the Morgan Library surrendered “Self-Portrait” (1910).
Lauder returned “I Love Antithesis” (1912), and the Sabarsky estate gave back two works: “Portrait of a Boy (Herbert Reiner)” from 1910 and “Seated Woman” (1911).
Timothy Reif, an heir of Grünbaum, emphasized the far-reaching importance of this restitution effort for descendants of Holocaust victims, even decades after the end of World War II. He believes it sets a vital precedent for future cases.
The DA’s office secured agreements from the three museums and two collectors involved, relinquishing all claims to the artworks within the context of a criminal investigation into “Nazi looted art.”
Plans are in place for Christie’s in New York to auction at least six of the returned works later this year. The proceeds will support the newly established Grünbaum Fischer Foundation and fund a scholarship program for aspiring musicians.
It’s worth noting that the Manhattan DA’s office appraised the most valuable of the returned Schiele works, “I Love Antithesis,” at $2.75 million. This sum is a fraction of the artist’s record-setting auction price at Sotheby’s in London in 2011, when “Hauser mit bunter Wasche (Vorstadt II)” from 1914 sold for £24.7 million ($40.1 million).
The other two heirs involved in this restitution effort are David Fraenkel, a co-trustee of Grünbaum’s estate, and Milos Vavra. Reif mentioned that Grünbaum was his paternal grandfather’s first cousin.
This press conference followed the issuance of warrants earlier this month by the Manhattan DA’s office for three additional Schiele artworks at the Art Institute of Chicago, the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh, and the Allen Memorial Art Museum at Oberlin College.