US Returns Stolen Nazi Era Art by Egon Schiele to Rightful Heirs

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The United States has reverently handed back seven art masterpieces crafted by the famed Austrian artist, Egon Schiele, to the rightful heirs of Fritz Grünbaum, a Jewish cabaret icon of his time, who fell victim to the Nazis in 1941.

The family of Mr. Grünbaum had been campaigning, with persistent resolve, for the restoration of his Schiele artworks for a prolonged span of over twenty years. Each of these exquisite pieces are estimated to hold a value ranging from $780,000 to $2.75 million. Surprisingly, a few of them had even found their way into renowned museums across the US.

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These allegations resulted in a flurry of lawsuits across multiple courts. It was in 2018 when a civil court in New York established that Mr. Grünbaum had never willingly sold or relinquished his collection.

On Monday, in an earnest ceremony, Alvin Bragg, the Manhattan District Attorney, labelled the reinstatement of the artwork as a landmark event. The museums, which had displayed these obscure pieces, namely the Museum of Modern Art and the Morgan Library & Museum in New York, teamed with the Santa Barbara Museum of Art in California, graciously decided to surrender the pieces to prosecutors after becoming aware of their dubious origins.

Notably, some pieces were in the custody of Ronald Lauder, the World Jewish Congress’s president, and the legacy of Serge Sabarsky, an esteemed art collector. They too, graciously acquiesced to part with them.

In his lifetime, Mr. Grünbaum, who tragically perished in the notorious concentration camp at Dachau, Germany, was a proud owner of an extensive collection of 81 Schiele originals. His wife, Elisabeth, was forced by the Nazis to abdicate his art collection after his indignant arrest in 1938. A few years later, she too met her tragic demise in a concentration camp, in 1942.

Adolf Hitler had condemned Schiele’s artwork as decadent, indirectly leading to the financial strengthening of the Nazi party through the sale of such artwork. Some of these stolen pieces eventually ended up with a New York-based dealer, Otto Kallir, who subsequently dealt them off to various buyers.

In 2018, the heirs of Mr. Grünbaum pursued a legal course in the New York State court to reclaim two Schiele paintings from Richard Nagy, a collector based in London. Charles V Ramos, the presiding judge, ruled in the favour of the heirs, stating that it is highly implausible that Mr. Grünbaum would have willingly parted ways with his treasures while enduring his ordeal at Dachau.

Prompted by this judgement, the heirs escalated their case to the Manhattan district attorney. Hence, the prosecutors initiated steps to determine if other Schiele pieces that once belonged to Mr. Grünbaum could be classified as stolen property as per New York laws.

This move allowed prosecutors to trace the journey of these seven artworks through New York and into their current resting places. Timothy Reif, a relative of Mr. Grünbaum, expressed gratitude to New York prosecutors for their instrumental role in helping return these pieces to the rightful owners.

He poignantly reflected that the successful recovery not only brought a small semblance of justice but also drew attention back to Fritz and Elisabeth’s lively spirit and love of life that existed before the tragedy. Among the returned artworks are I Love Antithesis and Standing Woman, valued at $2.75 million and $1.5 million, respectively, the latter having once been exhibited at the MoMA.

The monumental return of these seven pieces comes hot on the heels of a recent declaration by Manhattan prosecutors intending to seize three other artworks from galleries in Chicago, Pittsburgh and Ohio.

As per a statement provided by the New York State Supreme Court, all signs indicate a possible classification of the aforementioned artworks as stolen property. The fate of these artworks currently rests in the hands of a federal case aimed at resolving this matter. The pieces are, however, still housed at the respective museums, whose officials firmly uphold the legality of their ownership of such art.

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Melinda Cochrane is a poet, teacher and fiction author. She is also the editor and publisher of The Inspired Heart, a collection of international writers. Melinda also runs a publishing company, Melinda Cochrane International books for aspiring writers, based out Montreal, Quebec. Her publication credits include: The art of poetic inquiry, (Backalong Books), a novella, Desperate Freedom, (Brian Wrixon Books Canada), and 2 collections of poetry; The Man Who Stole Father’s Boat, (Backalong Books), and She’s an Island Poet, Desperate Freedom was on the bestseller's list for one week, and The Man Who Stole Father’s Boat is one of hope and encouragement for all those living in the social welfare system. She’s been published in online magazines such as, (regular writer for) ‘Life as a Human’, and Shannon Grissom’s magazine.