US authorities have taken possession of artworks by Austrian artist Egon Schiele from American museums following allegations that they were looted during the Holocaust. Investigative actions in New York led to the seizure of three pieces from galleries in Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Ohio.
The claim is made by the heirs of Fritz Grünbaum, an Austrian-Jewish art collector, cabaret performer, and vocal critic of Nazism, who died in the Dachau concentration camp in 1941. Grünbaum owned 81 artworks by Schiele, part of a larger collection of over 400 art pieces, as documented in previous legal cases.
According to legal documents, Grünbaum was coerced by the Nazis into granting power of attorney to his wife while he was interned in a concentration camp around 1938. The artworks he possessed were subsequently looted and dispersed.
One of the seized artworks, “Russian War Prisoner” by Schiele, valued at approximately $1.25 million (£1 million), was taken from the Art Institute of Chicago. The museum expressed confidence in their legal ownership and mentioned that the matter is being appropriately litigated in federal court.
A drawing titled “Portrait of a Man” was seized from the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh, valued at $1 million. The museum affirmed its commitment to acting in accordance with ethical, legal, and professional norms.
The Allen Memorial Art Museum at Oberlin College in Ohio had its artwork, “Girl With Black Hair” by Schiele, valued at $1.5 million, targeted for seizure. The college asserted that it legally acquired the artwork in 1958 and is cooperating with the Manhattan District Attorney’s investigation.
In the warrants issued by the New York State Supreme Court, it is stated that there is “reasonable cause to believe” that the artworks constitute stolen property. The Manhattan District Attorney’s office declined to comment on the ongoing investigation.
The heirs of Fritz Grünbaum have been actively seeking the return of Schiele artworks for several years, and some previous legal efforts have resulted in the return of specific pieces. In 2015, they sued London-based art dealer Richard Nagy and subsequently reclaimed “Woman in a Black Pinafore” and “Woman Hiding Her Face.” Despite an appeal by Nagy, the decision was upheld by the New York Court of Appeals.