For decades, heirs of Fritz Grünbaum, an Austrian-Jewish cabaret performer killed in 1941 at the Dachau concentration camp, have been attempting to recover their ancestor’s art collection through lengthy litigation in civil court. But with the help of the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, seven Egon Schiele works were returned to the family by a group of art institutions and collectors earlier this week.
When Grünbaum was captured by the Nazis in the late 1930s, he was forced to sign over his collection of more than 80 Schiele works. The drawings reappeared at a Swiss auction house in the 1950s and eventually made their way to New York City, where they joined various art collections.
The paintings returned to Grünbaum’s heirs were voluntarily surrendered by several museums and collectors, as announced by the Manhattan DA on September 20. Four came from MoMA, the Morgan Library & Museum and the Santa Barbara Museum of Art (SBMA), which released a statement indicating that the institution decided to return the Schiele works after being presented with new information regarding their provenances.
Meanwhile, two Schiele paintings were seized from the estate of late collector Serge Sabarsky, while I Love Antithesis (1912), valued at $2.75 million, was returned by Ronald Lauder, the billionaire art collector and founder of Manhattan’s Neue Galerie. “I am pleased and honored to be able to help Fritz Grünbaum’s heirs continue their laudable efforts to recover his legacy,” said Lauder, who restituted and then repurchased a Gustav Klimt from the descendants of a Jewish woman earlier this year, in a statement. Lauder’s Neue Galerie has additionally long been transparent about the history of Nazi-looted works in its collection, displaying information on such pieces both at the museum and online.
The case “establishes a bright-line rule and creates great clarity in terms of thinking about the context of the times,” Marc Porter, chairman of Christie’s America and head of restitution at the auction house, told Observer. Christie’s will sell a selection of the Schiele works later this year, with sale proceeds benefiting the nonprofit Grünbaum Fischer Foundation.
Grünbaum’s family has long attempted to use civil suits to reclaim his looted paintings. In 2018, a New York court ordered collector Richard Nagy to return two Schiele watercolors, but like many Nazi art claims, much of the family’s suits have remained tied up in court over the decades, held in limbo by negotiations and debates over technical defenses like statutes of limitations and the legal status of sales under duress. Now that the Manhattan DA is involved, their claims can be processed in criminal court.
“I was surprised,” Nicholas O’Donnell, a Boston-based attorney who specializes in Nazi-looted art claims, told Observer. “This hasn’t happened in twenty-five years,” he added, referring to the 1998 attempt of Robert M. Morgenthau, then the Manhattan District Attorney, to seize two Schiele works, one of which was previously owned by Grünbaum.
What role will the Manhattan district attorney’s office play in future claims?
The Manhattan DA’s office has increasingly been on the lookout for illicit antiquities since the 2017 formation of the Antiquities Trafficking Unit, led by assistant DA Matthew Bogdanos. Over the past five years, the unit has recovered more than 4,500 antiquities stolen from 30 countries, valued at more than $410 million. “It makes eminent sense to extend that to Nazi-looted art,” Lawrence Kaye, a New York-based lawyer who focuses on art restitution, told Observer.
Earlier this month, the office seized three additional Schiele works linked to Grünbaum from the Art Institute of Chicago, Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museums and Ohio’s Allen Memorial Art Museum. While the institutions, which had been involved in civil cases with Grünbaum’s heirs prior to the seizures, are located outside of New York, the works in question previously traveled through the state. “It will be very interesting to see how these other three museums handle it—whether they’ll seek to fight the seizures, and if so, what arguments they’re going to make,” said Kaye.
But the return of the seven Schiele works, while notable, isn’t the most significant recent event in the world of Nazi-looted artwork, according to Wesley Fischer, director of research at the Jewish Claims Conference and World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO). He pointed to other examples of progress in restitution around the globe, including the Croatian government’s renewed focus on returning works to Jewish heirs and Germany’s reworking of its Limbach Commission, founded to mediate ownership disputes over Nazi art claims. But the case will likely increase public awareness of the issue, he told Observer. “It’s more useful in the area of public opinion.”
The willingness of MoMA, the Morgan Library, SMBA, the Sabarsky Trust and Lauder to hand over their holdings will also have reverberations in the art world, noted Kaye. “These museums and collectors have set an example,” he said. “It is a significant step.”
One of many unanswered questions following the return of the works is what impact the shift from civil to criminal litigation will have outside of New York, where most prosecutors haven’t yet matched the aggressive cultural restitution demonstrated by Bogdanos’ unit. Attorneys like Kaye suspect that the recent Grünbaum restitution will likely inspire more requests for criminal law to be applied in Nazi-looted art cases in the U.S. “It may lead other prosecutors in other jurisdictions to do the same thing,” he said.