Schiele Masterpieces Returned to Nazi Victim’s Heirs in Historic Ruling

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Following a prolonged quest spanning more than two decades, seven masterpieces by Austrian painter Egon Schiele have finally been handed back to the descendants of their previous owner, Fritz Grünbaum, a renowned Jewish cabaret act who tragically lost his life at the hands of the Nazis during the Second World War.

The artwork has been estimated at an impressive $780,000 to $2.75m (around £633,000 to £2.23m) per piece, and up until now, some of them had adorned the galleries of prolific museums in the United States. However, their presence wasn’t without legal conflict since the rightful heirs initiated several actions to claim ownership.

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In a landmark judgement in 2018, a civil court in New York declared that Grünbaum, who was never involved in selling or bequeathing his precious collection, was the legitimate owner of the Schiele pieces. This determination set a precedence that these artworks were illicitly procured, sparking a significant event earlier this week that saw their rightful return to Grünbaum’s heirs. The Manhattan District Attorney, Alvin Bragg, marked this occasion as “historic” during the formal ceremony.

Two major museums in New York, the Museum of Modern Art and the Morgan Library & Museum, as well as the Santa Barbara Museum of Art in California, collectively offered to surrender the contested pieces to prosecutors when they found out about their dubious provenance. World Jewish Congress’ president Ronald Lauder and the estate of renowned art collector Serge Sabarsky, who had some of the pieces in their possession, too volunteered to repatriate them.

Before the war, Grünbaum had possessed an impressive hoard of 81 works by Schiele. His wife Elisabeth was forced to relinquish their treasured collection to the Nazis in 1938, following Grünbaum’s arrest. Both died in concentration camps soon after in 1941 and 1942, respectively. Later, the Nazis labeled Schiele’s work as “degenerate” and used their sale to fund their party.

Even after the war, the distribution of Grünbaum’s collection continued through Otto Kallir, a New York art dealer, who sold the pieces to various buyers.

The saga took a significant turn in 2018, when Grünbaum’s heirs toiled in New York Courts for the recuperation of two pieces from Richard Nagy, a collector based in London. Honorable Charles V Ramos, presiding judge, acknowledged that Grünbaum was unlikely to have voluntarily parted with his collection while in custody at Dachau.

This pronouncement emboldened the heirs to approach the Manhattan district attorney to consider the pieces stolen under New York law, making the task of tracing the artworks through New York and into several collections possible.

Timothy Reif, Grünbaum’s kin, lauded the role of New York prosecutors in restoring the artworks to their lawful heirs, stating their efforts brought a semblance of justice for the victims of these heinous crimes.

Among the recovered pieces are I Love Antithesis, with a value of $2.75m, and Standing Woman, previously exhibited at MoMA, worth $1.5m.

This development lays the groundwork for Manhattan prosecutors to pursue three more artworks presently held in galleries in Chicago, Pittsburgh and Ohio, as announced last week. The New York State Supreme Court maintains that these artworks may constitute “stolen property”.

While legal proceedings are pending, the artworks remain housed in the museums, with officials confident in their ownership rights over the challenged pieces.