Nazi-looted artwork: seven drawings were given back to a Jewish collector’s descendants

Nazis murdered a Jewish collector in 1941. Schiele's drawings are Austrian expressionist.

On Wednesday, September 20, 2023, the Manhattan prosecutor’s office declared that seven artworks had been formally returned to the heirs of Jewish collector Fritz Grünbaum, who was murdered by the Nazis in 1941. The Austrian expressionist artist Egon Schiele created these drawings.

It was declared by the Manhattan prosecutor’s office on September 20, 2023, that seven pieces by the Austrian expressionist artist Egon Schiele had been legally returned to the descendants of a Jewish collector who had been murdered by the Nazis in the Dachau concentration camp in 1941. Among the repatriated works were those that were in the holdings of the Museum of Modern Art.

This restitution is an important win for the descendants of Fritz Grunbaum, who have been fighting in court for years to regain control of their grandfather’s works. This restitution was granted after the heirs of Grunbaum filed a claim to have the works returned to them.

“Voluntarily” undertaken by the organisations involved

The prosecution claims that they were “voluntarily” returned by the institutions that had custody of them “once proof of their theft by the Nazis had been presented to them”. However, the prosecution has not provided any evidence to support this claim. A formal restitution ceremony is scheduled to take place at 7 p.m. GMT on Monday.

Judge Timothy Reif, one of the heirs, extended his congratulations to the law enforcement officials, stating that they “succeeded in solving crimes committed more than 80 years ago.”

The seven works were “seized” in 2023 by the anti-art trafficking unit of the Manhattan public prosecutor’s Office, two of them at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (MoMA), but also at the Morgan Library in New York, at the Santa Barbara Art Museum (California), in the Ronald Lauder collection, and within the Vally Sabarsky trust, which was named after the art dealer Serge Sabarsky, who passed away in 1996, indicates the prosecution from Manhattan.

Between 780 thousand dollars to 2.75 million dollars.

According to the same source, the drawings by Egon Schiele, an important figure in Austrian expressionism who passed away in 1918 when he was only 28 years old, are valued between 780,000 and 2.75 million dollars, and the entire value of their collection exceeds 9 million dollars.

Fritz Grunbaum was an Austrian Jewish cabaret artist who was both a notable art collector and a critic of the Nazi dictatorship. He owned more than 80 drawings by Schiele and was known for his cabaret performances. In 1941, he was a victim of the concentration camp in Dachau and died there.

A power of attorney document was pressed upon them.

One of the heirs’ most important points was taken up by the American court system. Grunbaum was taken prisoner by the Nazis in 1938 and taken to Dachau, where he was coerced into signing a power of attorney in favour of his wife, Elisabeth. After that, she was the one who was made to turn over the entire collection to the Nazi authorities, and after that, she was sent to the Maly Trostinec prison camp outside Minsk, in what is now Belarus, where she was executed.

In the 1950s, the artworks were seen for the first time on the market again, this time in Switzerland before being resold in New York.

In 2018, a judge in New York had previously decided in favour of the Grunbaum heirs and ordered the restitution of two works by Schiele. The judge wrote in his judgement that “a signature at gunpoint” could not be worthless and that the paintings should be returned to the Grunbaum family.

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