In a major restitution case involving two Nazi-looted Egon Schiele watercolor paintings, a New York appellate court upheld a ruling that returned the pieces to the heirs of their pre-war owner. Fritz Grünbaum, an Austrian cabaret singer, amassed a major collection of 449 artworks—including 81 works by Schiele—before being killed in a concentration camp in 1941. The works were originally returned to the heirs in 2018, and this ruling being upheld puts an end to a complex, years-long dispute. The Schieles at stake in this legal battle are Woman in a Black Pinafore (1911) and Woman Hiding her Face (1912).
Last year, New York state judge Charles J. Ramos cited the Holocaust Expropriated Art Recovery Act (HEAR act), a law enacted in 2016 that gives descendants to victims of Nazi persecution a greater chance of regaining artworks misapropriated by the Nazis by easing the statue of limitations on such cases. Earlier this week, a unanimous ruling by a five-judge panel once again cited the HEAR act when stating its verdict; the judges also found that the evidence indicated Grünbaum had owned the works before the war and had never voluntarily rescinded ownership.
The judges wrote in their ruling:
The tragic consequences of the Nazi occupation of Europe on the lives, liberty and property of the Jews continue to confront us today. [. . .] We reject the notion that a person who signs a power of attorney in a death camp can be said to have executed the document voluntarily.
Prior to this trial, the works had been owned by London art dealer Richard Nagy, who purchased them six years ago. While the court has not accused Nagy of any wrongdoing, the holes in the works’ provenance history tipped the scales of justice in the direction of Grünbaum’s heirs. Nagy believed that the works wound up in possession of Grünbaum’s sister-in-law Mathilde Lukacs, who then sold them after the war to Swiss art dealer Eberhard Kornfeld.
Eventually, the Schiele works from Grünbaum’s collection were sold to American dealer Otto Kallir, who sold them to a variety of patrons. Kornfeld published a catalogue of Schiele artworks in 1956 that contained no mention of Lukacs, however, Kornfeld himself testified in 2007, claiming he did purchase the works from Lukacs. While Kornfeld presented documents corroborating this account, Grünbaum’s heirs dismissed the documents as either forgeries or fakes; neither the lower court nor the appellate court considered them to be substantial evidence.
The heirs’ attorney told the New York Times the works are at Christie’s and will be auctioned in November. He said their estimated worth is around $7 million.