Three artworks believed to have been stolen during the Holocaust from Jewish art collector and entertainer Fritz Grünbaum were seized from museums in three states by New York law enforcement authorities. The artworks, created by Austrian Expressionist Egon Schiele, were taken from the Art Institute of Chicago, the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh, and the Allen Memorial Art Museum at Oberlin College in Ohio. Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s office issued warrants stating reasonable cause to believe the artworks are stolen property.
The three seized works, along with others from Grünbaum’s collection, are already the subject of civil litigation filed by his heirs. They claim that Grünbaum was forced to relinquish ownership of the artworks under duress. Manhattan prosecutors assert jurisdiction in all the cases due to the artworks being bought and sold by Manhattan art dealers at some point.
Fritz Grünbaum, the son of a Jewish art dealer, began assembling his collection in the 1920s. He was a well-known cabaret performer in Vienna and Berlin before being arrested and sent to the Dachau concentration camp in 1938. Grünbaum died at Dachau on January 14, 1941, after giving his final performance for fellow inmates on New Year’s Eve 1940.
The three artworks seized by the Manhattan District Attorney’s office are: “Russian War Prisoner,” a watercolor and pencil on paper piece valued at $1.25 million, seized from the Art Institute; “Portrait of a Man,” a pencil on paper drawing valued at $1 million, seized from the Carnegie Museum of Art; and “Girl With Black Hair,” a watercolor and pencil on paper work valued at $1.5 million, taken from Oberlin.
The museums involved have expressed their confidence in the legal acquisition and lawful possession of the artworks. The Art Institute stated that the dispute is being properly litigated in federal court, where they are defending their legal ownership. The Carnegie Museum affirmed its commitment to acting in accordance with ethical, legal, and professional requirements and norms, and Oberlin College stated its cooperation with investigators, asserting its belief in the lawful acquisition and possession of the artwork.
Prior to the recent seizures, Grünbaum’s heirs had already filed civil claims against the three museums and other defendants seeking the return of artworks they believe were looted from Grünbaum. In 2018, a New York judge ruled in favor of the heirs, ordering the return of two Schiele works under the Holocaust Expropriated Recovery Act. The ruling rejected the argument that the artworks were rightfully owned by London art dealer Richard Nagy, as there was no evidence of voluntary transfer by Grünbaum to his sister-in-law, Mathilde Lukacs.
Raymond Dowd, the attorney representing the heirs in their civil proceedings, referred questions about the recent seizure to the district attorney’s office. These actions by the Manhattan District Attorney’s office follow the seizures of allegedly looted antiquities from museums in Cleveland and Worcester, Massachusetts. The artworks seized in this case are part of an ongoing investigation, according to a spokesperson for the district attorney.