Three works by the famed Austrian Expressionist Egon Schiele have been ordered seized by the Manhattan District Attorney’s office on suspicion that they were stolen from a Jewish collector who died in the Holocaust and rightly belong to his heirs.
According to The New York Times, the three works in question, which have been seized “in place” and will be transferred to New York in the future, are: an early watercolour and pencil work, Girl with Black Hair (1911), valued at $1.5m and held in the collection of the Allen Memorial Art Museum at Oberlin College in Ohio; a watercolour and pencil work on paper from 1916, Russian War Prisoner, valued at $1.25m and in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago (AIC); and a pencil drawing in the collection of the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, Portrait of a Man (1917), valued at $1m.
The works are subject to claims by the heirs of Fritz Grünbaum, a Jewish cabaret performer and art collector who was outspoken in his criticisms of German persecution during the 1930s. By 1938, he was being held at the Dachau concentration camp, when his heirs allege he was coerced into signing an unlawful power-of-attorney document. Grünbaum was murdered at Dachau three years later, and his collection—which included 81 works by Schiele—was subsequently sold and dispersed. His heirs are seeking to recover around a dozen Schiele works currently in the US.
Russian War Prisoner “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”, an AIC spokesperson said in a statement. “We are confident in our legal acquisition and lawful possession of this work.”
A spokesperson for the Carnegie Museums, which oversees the Carnegie Museum of Art and three other Pittsburgh institutions, said the organisation “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.”
A spokesperson for Oberlin College told The Art Newspaper: "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."
In 2018, Grünbaum’s heirs—Timothy Reif, David Fraenkel and Milos Vavra—successfully recovered two Schiele watercolours that had been bought by the London dealer Richard Nagy in 2013 and seized when he brought them to an art fair in New York in 2015. That case was one of the first to rely on the Holocaust Expropriated Art Recovery (Hear) Act, which took effect in 2016 and extended the period of time that claims could be made on Nazi-looted works to six years after they are first discovered. The heirs subsequently sold the works at Christie’s in November 2022, where they brought just over $3m (including fees).