US Returns Nazi-Looted Artworks by Egon Schiele to Jewish Heirs

The US has restored seven artworks by the Austrian expressionist painter Egon Schiele to the rightful heirs of Fritz Grünbaum, a Jewish cabaret star who was killed by the Nazis in 1941. The artworks, valued at millions of dollars, had been on display at prominent museums and private collections in the US.

A Historic Moment for Justice

In a ceremony on Monday, Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg called the return of the artworks “historic”. He said: “We are here far too long, but we are here today.” He praised the efforts of his predecessors and his team for pursuing the case for more than two decades.

The artworks were seized by the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office after a New York civil court ruled in 2018 that they were never sold or surrendered by Mr Grünbaum, but were looted by the Nazis. The court rejected the arguments of Richard Nagy, a London-based art dealer who claimed to have acquired them legally.

US Returns Nazi-Looted Artworks by Egon Schiele to Jewish Heirs
US Returns Nazi-Looted Artworks by Egon Schiele to Jewish Heirs

The museums where the artworks were held – the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and the Morgan Library & Museum, both in New York, and the Santa Barbara Museum of Art in California – agreed to give them voluntarily to prosecutors after learning that they had been stolen. A few of the artworks were also in the possession of Ronald Lauder, the president of the World Jewish Congress, and the estate of Serge Sabarsky, a well-known art collector, both of whom agreed to return them.

A Tragic Story of Loss and Persecution

Fritz Grünbaum was a famous cabaret performer and art collector in Vienna, Austria. He owned 81 pieces by Egon Schiele, one of the most influential artists of the early 20th century. He also had a collection of more than 400 works of art by other artists.

In 1938, after the Nazi annexation of Austria, Mr Grünbaum was arrested and sent to Dachau concentration camp, where he died in 1941. His wife, Elisabeth, was forced to hand over his art collection to Nazi officials after he was detained. She later died in a concentration camp in 1942.

The Nazis declared Schiele’s artworks as “degenerate art” and sold them to finance their war efforts. Some of them ended up in the hands of Otto Kallir, a New York dealer who sold them to different buyers.

A Long Battle for Restitution

The heirs of Mr Grünbaum have been fighting for the return of his Schiele pieces since 1998. They have faced legal challenges from various parties who claimed to have valid ownership of the artworks. They have also faced difficulties in proving their lineage and documenting the provenance of the artworks.

Timothy Reif, a relative of Mr Grünbaum, thanked New York prosecutors for their role in returning the artworks to their legal owners. He said: “By recovering these long-lost artworks, our law enforcement authorities of today achieved a measure of justice for the victims of murder and robbery.”

He also urged people to remember Mr Grünbaum and his wife as vibrant and talented individuals who loved art and life. He said: “When viewing these artworks, imagine Fritz and Elisabeth in their lively Vienna apartment singing and dancing and cracking jokes.”

The seven artworks that were returned are:

  • I Love Antithesis (1912), valued at $2.75m
  • Portrait Wally (1912), valued at $2m
  • Russian War Prisoner (1916), valued at $1.25m
  • Girl with Black Hair (1911), valued at $1.5m
  • Portrait of a Man (1917), valued at $1m
  • Woman Hiding Her Face (1912), valued at $780,000
  • Woman in a Black Pinafore (1911), valued at $780,000

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