Seven Egon Schiele artworks plundered during the Nazi regime and held in the collections of institutions including the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and the Morgan Library and Museum in New York have been returned to the living descendants of Austrian-Jewish cabaret performer Fritz Grünbaum.
The Manhattan District Attorney’s (DA) Office announced the return of the works by the Austrian Expressionist in a ceremony last week. With a combined value of nearly $10M, the pieces were returned or surrendered from MoMA, the Morgan, the Santa Barbara Museum of Art (SBMA), the Ronald S. Lauder Collection, and the Vally Sabarsky Trust.
Grünbaum was a well-known and politically engaged performer whose critical commentary was deeply intertwined with his stage work. He fled to Vienna and continued to produce and perform work critical of the Nazi regime after Jewish people had been barred from performing in Germany. Considered a political dissident, Grünbaum was arrested at the then-Czechoslovakian border in 1938 once the Nazis had annexed Austria and detained at the Dachau concentration camp where he was killed in 1941.
His wife, Elisabeth, was forced to liquidate their assets, including an enormous art collection primarily specializing in Austrian Modernism with 80 drawings by Schiele, to the Nazis before she was arrested, detained, and murdered at a concentration camp in Minsk, Belarus, in 1942. Schiele’s works fell into the Nazis’ “degenerate” category, enabling the party to seize, dispose of, or auction it off to help advance the regime monetarily.
The whereabouts of much of the Grünbaum collection remained unknown. According to a statement from the Manhattan DA’s Office, the seven Schiele works in question surfaced in Bern, Switzerland, in 1956 and were sold to New York gallerist and collector Otto Kallir, who reportedly knew that they had been in the Grünbaum collection.
Grünbaum’s heirs, including Timothy Reif, David Fraenkel, and Milos Vavra, have spent over 25 years trying to track down and regain ownership of works from the liquidated collection that have cropped up over time. In 2012, Vavra lost a seven-year court case regarding the recovery of another Schiele work from sculptor David Bakalar’s private collection after it was determined that Bakalar was a “good-faith purchaser” and that Vavra et al. “were not diligent in pursuing their claims to the drawing.”
However, the United States Congress enacted the Holocaust Expropriated Recovery Act in 2016, providing a six-year statute of limitations for descendants of Holocaust victims to file a claim if it’s been discovered that Nazis had confiscated ancestral properties. Reif and Fraenkel filed a suit against the MoMA and the SBMA in 2022 regarding the recovery of two Schiele works: “Prostitute” (1912) from the MoMA collection and “Portrait of the Artist’s Wife, Edith” (1915) from the SBMA collection.
It’s not MoMA’s first experience with a restitution claim of possible Nazi-era stolen art. In 2009, the heirs of George Grosz filed a lawsuit in which they claimed that three paintings by the German artist held by MoMA were lost in the 1930s, amid Nazi persecution. The case was dismissed in 2010, with a federal court ruling that the statute of limitations for the works’ return had passed. At the time, a MoMA spokesperson told the New York Times that the museum “[had] good title to the works” and “an obligation to the public to defend our ownership appropriately.” But the artist’s son Martin Grosz said his father had singled out one of the works as “stolen” during his lifetime. In 1953, according to court documents, the artist reportedly visited the museum and wrote to his brother-in-law: “Modern Museum exhibits a painting stolen from me (I am powerless against that) they bought it from someone, who stole it.”
The three works are included in MoMA’s Provenance Research Project database. According to the museum’s website, the collection contains approximately 800 paintings created before 1946 and acquired after 1932 that were or could have been in Continental Europe during the Nazi era.
MoMA did not respond to Hyperallergic‘s request for comment.
This month, the Manhattan DA Office’s Antiquities Trafficking Unit seized the “Prostitute” painting as well as a second Schiele work, “Girl Putting on Shoe” (1910), from the MoMA collection. The unit also seized the portrait from the SBMA, Schiele’s self-portrait called “I Love Antithesis” (1912) from the Ronald S. Lauder collection, another self-portrait from the Morgan Library and Museum, and two works from the Vally Sabarsky trust. The statement from the DA Office notes that the drawings “were seized and voluntarily surrendered” by the institutions, collections, and estates after evidence of their theft had been presented.
“Frtiz Grünbaum was a man of incredible depth and spirit, and his memory lives on through the artworks that are finally being returned to his relatives,” DA Alvin Bragg said in the statement. “I hope this moment can serve as a reminder that despite the horrific death and destruction caused by the Nazis, it is never too late to recover some of what we lost, honor the victims, and reflect on how their families are still impacted to this day.”
Reif indicated to the New York Times that six of the seven recovered Schiele works will be auctioned off at Christie’s to fund a new Grünbaum scholarship to support young underrepresented musicians and performing artists.
Valentina Di Liscia contributed reporting.