A New York judge awarded two Nazi-looted paintings to the heirs of an Austrian-Jewish Holocaust victim whose collection of hundreds of pieces of art was systematically taken by Hitler’s army in 1938.
Justice Charles E. Ramos in Manhattan on Thursday rejected claims by a British art dealer that the two paintings in his possession -- Egon Schiele’s “Woman in a Black Pinafore” and “Woman Hiding her Face” -- couldn’t be seized under the Holocaust Expropriated Art Recovery Act signed into law by former President Barack Obama in 2016.
“Although defendants argue that the HEAR Act is inapplicable, this argument is absurd, as the act is intended to apply to cases precisely like this one, where Nazi-looted art is at issue,” Ramos said in the decision.
The judge ordered the titles to the works be transferred to the heirs of Fritz Grunbaum, a songwriter, director and actor who openly mocked Hitler and performed musicals and plays for his fellow prisoners in the Dachau concentration camp before his death in captivity in 1941, their attorney, Raymond Dowd, said in a statement.
Grunbaum’s collection of 450 pieces, 80 of which were Schiele works, was looted in its entirety by Nazi agents in 1938, after soldiers forced him to sign the rights over to his wife, who was also later murdered. Although the art dealer, Richard Nagy, argued the works had been properly transferred over the years, Ramos found the manner in which they initially left Grunbaum’s possession undermined his case.
"A signature at gunpoint cannot lead to a valid conveyance," Ramos said.
The two Schiele paintings in question have been housed in a fine art storage facility in Queens, New York, since the suit was filed 2015, according to the statement. They were initially sold off by a gallery in Switzerland in the 1950s, according to the ruling.
The case was filed when Dowd requested the artworks be returned to Grunbaum’s heirs after they were found in Nagy’s booth at an art fair on Park Avenue in Manhattan, according to a statement.
“It is a victory for Holocaust victims, their families, and all those who fought and died to undo the evils of Nazism,” Dowd, from Dunnington, Bartholow & Miller LLP, said in the statement. "This decision brought us a step closer to recovering all of the culture that was stolen during the largest mass-theft in history.”