US Returns Stolen Egon Schiele Artworks to Heirs of Jewish Cabaret Star

In a significant move, the United States has returned seven artworks by Austrian painter Egon Schiele to the heirs of Fritz Grünbaum, a Jewish cabaret star who owned them before being killed by the Nazis in 1941. For more than two decades, Grünbaum’s family has fought for the return of his Schiele pieces, which are valued between $780,000 and $2.75 million each. The artworks, some of which were on display at prestigious museums in the US, had prompted legal battles in multiple courts. However, in 2018, a New York civil court ruled that the pieces were never sold or surrendered by Grünbaum, leading to their eventual return to his heirs.

The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and the Morgan Library & Museum in New York, along with the Santa Barbara Museum of Art in California, voluntarily agreed to hand over the artworks to prosecutors after learning that they had been stolen. Additionally, Ronald Lauder, the president of the World Jewish Congress, and the estate of Serge Sabarsky, a renowned art collector, agreed to return the pieces that were in their possession. Grünbaum, who perished in Dachau concentration camp, owned a total of 81 Schiele pieces. His wife, Elisabeth, was coerced to surrender his art collection to the Nazis after his arrest in 1938. She later died in a concentration camp in 1942.

Adolf Hitler had deemed Schiele’s artworks as “degenerate art” and the Nazis sold them to fund their party. Some of the pieces ended up with New York dealer Otto Kallir, who sold them to various buyers. In 2018, Grünbaum’s heirs filed a lawsuit in New York State against Richard Nagy, a London-based collector, in an effort to reclaim two Schiele pieces. The presiding judge, Charles V Ramos, ruled in favor of the heirs, stating that it was unlikely Grünbaum willingly gave away the artworks while detained at Dachau. This prompted the heirs to seek the Manhattan district attorney’s involvement to determine if other Schiele pieces once owned by Grünbaum could be considered stolen property under New York law. Through this investigation, prosecutors were able to trace the journey of the seven recovered artworks through New York and various collections.

Timothy Reif, a relative of Grünbaum, commended the New York prosecutors for their role in returning the art to its rightful owners. Reif stated that the recovery represented a form of justice for the victims of murder and robbery. He also encouraged viewers to imagine Fritz and Elisabeth in their vibrant Vienna apartment, singing, dancing, and cracking jokes while admiring these artworks. Among the returned pieces is “I Love Antithesis,” valued at $2.75 million, and “Standing Woman,” which was previously exhibited at MoMA and valued at $1.5 million.

This development follows the recent seizure of three other artworks by Manhattan prosecutors from galleries in Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Ohio. The New York state Supreme Court has stated that there is reasonable cause to believe these artworks may also be stolen property. Despite the ongoing federal case to determine the rightful owners, the artworks will remain at the museums for the time being, as museum officials assert confidence in their legal ownership of the art.

The restitution of Egon Schiele’s artworks to the heirs of Fritz Grünbaum is a significant step towards acknowledging the atrocities committed during the Holocaust and rectifying the injustices faced by victims and their families. It serves as a reminder of the importance of actively pursuing the return of stolen art to its legitimate owners, regardless of the passage of time. Such restitution not only provides a form of reparation but also helps preserve the memory, legacy, and cultural heritage of those who suffered under Nazi persecution.