Three Museums Forced to Part with Possibly Pilfered Schiele Works

11March 21, 2023

Three Museums Forced to …

The Manhattan district attorney’s office on September 13 seized from three US institutions a trio of works by Austrian Expressionist Egon Schiele that are believed to have been stolen during World War II and trafficked through New York. TheNew York Timesreports that the Art Institute of Chicago gave up Schiele’s 1916 watercolor-and-pencil-on-paperRussian War Prisoner, valued at $1.25 million, while Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum of Art parted with the 1917 pencil-on-paperPortrait of a Man, said to be worth $1 million, and the Allen Memorial Art Museum at Oberlin College in Ohio forked over the 1911 watercolor-and-pencil-on-paperGirl with Black Hair, valued at $1.5 million.RelatedHELEN FRANKENTHALER FOUNDATION SUED FOR “DESTROYING” PAINTER’S LEGACYBMA CREATES PAID INTERNSHIPS HONORING VALERIE MAYNARD The works are three of about a dozen Schiele pieces believed to have been signed over to the Nazis under duress by noted Austrian Jewish artist and cabaret performer Fritz Grünbaum in 1938 at Germany’s Dachau concentration camp, three years before he was murdered there. Grünbaum’s heirs had earlier filed civil claims against the three institutions and against the Museum of Modern Art and the Morgan Library and Museum, both in New York; the Santa Barbara Museum of Art in California; and an undisclosed number of individual defendants seeking the works’ return. The Manhattan DA office’s recent seizures, carried out on what the warrants cast as “reasonable cause to believe” the works were stolen, move the case into the realm of criminal court. The Art Institute in a statement told theTimesthat it was “confident” in its “legal acquisition and lawful possession” of the work, while the Carnegie said that it had acted “in accordance with ethical, legal, and professional requirements and norms” and would “cooperate fully” with authorities. Oberlin to date has not yet commented publicly on the matter.

No criminal charges have been filed against any of the three museums. The plaintiffs—US Court of International Trade judge Timothy Reif; David Fraenkel, a cotrustee of the Grünbaum estate, and Milos Vavra—allege that Grünbaum, an outspoken Nazi critic, was forced to cede power of attorney to the hated group while at Dachau, with the result that his art collection was illegally sold off upon the war’s cessation. The heirs in 2018 retrieved two of the ill-gotten Schiele works after a New York County Supreme Court judgeruledthat “a signature at gunpoint cannot lead to a valid conveyance” of a person’s property..