Two works by Egon Schiele were returned Friday (19 January) to the heirs of the Austrian Jewish cabaret performer Fritz Grünbaum, from whose art collection the works were allegedly seized by Nazi Germany before he was killed in the Holocaust. The two works have been consigned to Christie’s, the auction house said.
A restitution ceremony took place with the Manhattan District Attorney’s office on Friday in New York. The pencil drawing Portrait of a Man (1917) had been in the collection of the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, while Girl With Black Hair (1911), an early watercolour, was held in the Allen Memorial Art Museum at Oberlin College in Ohio.
“It is of enormous personal satisfaction to me that we can continue to tell the story of Fritz Grünbaum and do the important work of preserving the history and deepening the understanding of forced art sales during the Nazi era,” said Marc Porter, Christie’s chairman for the Americas, in a statement.
The auction house has not catalogued the works, but the District Attorney’s office valued Girl with Black Hair at $1.5m and Portrait of a Man at $1m in September.
In September, the Manhattan District Attorney ordered the works to be seized over suspicion the paintings had been stolen from Grünbaum, who was murdered at the Dachau concentration camp in 1941, and at some point trafficked through New York. An outspoken performer who would criticise the Nazi regime on stage, Grünbaum’s heirs allege he was illegally coerced into signing over his power of attorney while held at Dachau concentration camp, which led to his art collection being illegally sold and widely scattered. The son of an art dealer, Grünbaum owned more than 400 works of art, including 81 by Schiele.
“As the heirs of Fritz Grünbaum, we are gratified that this man who fought for what was right in his own time continues to make the world fairer decades after his tragic death,” said Timothy Reif, one of Grünbaum’s heirs, in a statement.
According to the District Attorney’s office, the Grünbaum collection was inventoried by Franz Kieslinger, an art historian who impounded the works into a Nazi-controlled warehouse in 1938. Schiele’s work had been declared “degenerate” during the Nazi Party’s campaign against Modern art, and much of it was sold abroad in a programme overseen by Joseph Goebbels, the party’s head propagandist.
In September, the Manhattan District Attorney also issued a warrant for the seizure of a third Schiele work that once belonged to Grünbaum, Russian War Prisoner (1916), now in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago (AIC). In April, the museum will go to court and argue that it is the legal owner of the watercolour and pencil work. An AIC spokesperson said that according to the museum’s extensive research, Grünbaum’s sister-in-law inherited Russian War Prisoner and went on to sell the work in 1956.
Grünbaum’s heirs have successfully secured other works by Schiele after decades of legal battles. Christie’s offered six recently-restituted Schiele works on paper during the auction house’s most recent November sales in New York. Some of the proceeds from the Grünbaum Schieles have gone toward supporting musicians from underrepresented communities through the Grünbaum Fischer Foundation.