Seven artworks by the Austrian Expressionist Egon Schiele collectively valued at more than $9.5m have been returned to the heirs of Fritz Grünbaum, a Jewish cabaret artist who was killed by the Nazis at the Dachau concentration camp in 1941. The works had recently been seized from public and private collections throughout the United States including the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and the Morgan Library & Museum in New York, as well as the collection of Neue Galerie founder Ronald Lauder. They were returned to Grünbaum’s heirs during a ceremony at the office of Manhattan District Attorney Alvin L. Bragg on 20 September.
“Despite the horror, tragedy and destruction caused by the Nazis, it’s never too late to teach the world about incredible people Iike Mr. Grünbaum,” Bragg said during the ceremony. “Justice may be delayed but here at the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office it will never be denied.” Bragg’s office worked closely with Homeland Security Investigations, a division of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, on the case.
Grünbaum’s heirs have alleged that in 1938, by which time he was already being held at Dachau, he was coerced into signing a power-of-attorney document, which paved the way for the Nazis to seize and disperse his art collection. The heirs have spent decades trying to recover the collection, including the 81 works by Schiele that Grünbaum owned.
“By recovering these long-lost artworks our law enforcement authorities have today achieved a measure of justice for the victims of murder and robbery,” said Timothy Reif, a judge in the US Court of International Trade and one of the three Grünbaum descendants—along with David Fraenkel and Milos Vavra—seeking to recover the collection.
The returned works include a portrait of the artist's wife, Edith Harms, that had been in the collection of the Santa Barbara Museum of Art and, from Lauder’s collection, I Love Antithesis (1912), a self-portrait Schiele made while he was imprisoned on obscenity charges. According to prosecutors, all seven of the works returned this week had at one time been sold by a Manhattan-based dealer, giving Bragg’s office jurisdiction to pursue their return. One of the District Attorney’s predecessors, Robert M. Morgenthau, failed in 1998 to seize two of Grünbaum’s Schiele works that had been loaned to MoMA by a Vienna-based foundation.
In the decades since, Grünbaum’s heirs have had more success. In 2018 they 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. The closely-watched 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 recovered from Nagy at Christie’s in November 2022, where they brought just over $3m (including fees). At least six of the Schiele works restituted this week have already been consigned for sale at Christie’s this autumn in New York, according to The New York Times.