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  • Camille Basso

The American authorities seize works stolen during the Holocaust

In early September 2023, the American authorities seized three works by the Expressionist artist Egon Schiele that had belonged to the Jewish collector Fritz Grünbaum. Seized at the time of his arrest and deportation in 1938, the works had been sold to various art dealers before being exhibited in three American museums.

Oeuvre Maison avec linge suspendu, Egon Schiele
Maison avec linge suspendu, Egon Schiele

Fritz Grünbaum (1880-1941) was an Austrian Jewish cabaret artist and art collector who owned more than 80 drawings by Egon Schiele (1890-1918). The son of a Jewish art dealer, he had studied law but turned to the performing arts. Nonetheless, he retained his father's appreciation of art and began collecting his own works. In 1938, however, the singer-songwriter and collector was arrested by the Nazi authorities and sent to the Dachau concentration camp. Apart from his origins, his arrest was apparently prompted by a joke about the National Socialist Party. During a cabaret performance, Fritz Grünbaum said: "I can't see anything, not a single thing; I must have fallen into National Socialist culture. Sadly, the artist died in Dachau in January 1941, after a final performance for his fellow camp inmates.

The Grünbaum collection had been catalogued by Franz Kieslinger, an art historian and member of the Nazi party, and all the works by Schiele, considered to be 'degenerate' art by the regime, had been sold. Until early autumn, three of them were on display in three different museums in the United States. Manhattan prosecutor Alvin Bragg issued warrants in early September for the New York authorities to seize them. According to him, there are "reasonable grounds to believe that the three works of art are stolen property". These three items, along with others from Fritz Grünbaum's private collection, are the subject of civil proceedings brought by his heirs. They believe that the artist was forced to hand over these works when he was arrested.

The three works by Egon Schiele seized by the prosecutor's office are Russian Prisoner of War, a watercolour and pencil drawing valued at 1.17 million euros, Portrait of a Man, a pencil drawing valued at 940,000 euros and Girl with Black Hair, a watercolour and pencil drawing, estimated at 1.4 million euros. They were exhibited respectively at the Art Institute of Chicago, the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh and the Allen Memorial Museum of Art at Oberlin College, Ohio. For the time being, the works will have to remain in their respective museums until they can be transported to the prosecutor's office.

In a statement, the Art Institute of Chicago said, "We are confident in the legal acquisition and legal possession of this work. The work is the subject of civil litigation in federal court, where this dispute is being properly handled and where we are also defending our legal ownership." For its part, the Carnegie Museum stated that it was committed to "acting in accordance with ethical, legal and professional requirements and standards" and assured its cooperation with the New York authorities. The Oberlin College press release stated that it was "satisfied that it legally acquired Egon Schiele's Girl with Black Hair in 1958". However, the college has also undertaken to cooperate with the Manhattan District Attorney's Office.

Civil action brought by the heirs of Fritz Grünbaum

Fritz Grünbaum's heirs had filed civil suits against these three museums before the Manhattan district attorney's warrants were issued. They have also filed a number of other lawsuits seeking the return of works from the artist's private collection. In 2018, they won their first victory when a New York judge ruled that two more works by Schiele should be returned to them. The magistrate had made his decision under the Holocaust Expropriated Property Recovery Act, passed by the US Congress in 2016.

Their lawyer in the civil case, Raymond Dowd, recently referred questions about the seizure of the three new works to the office of U.S. Attorney Alvin Bragg. However, the DA's spokesman, Douglas Cohen, said he could not comment on the property seized by the authorities, other than to say that it was part of an ongoing investigation.


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