Breakthrough in 80-Year Battle for Entertainer Fritz Grunbaum’s Assets

Variety 18 November 2021
By Steven Gaydos

Among its many surprising pieces of entertainment history arcana, the Variety Archives contain stories from the 1930s involving an arena sadly familiar to business managers: government seizures of entertainers’ assets. But these seizures took place not because of any financial malfeasance, but because the artists were Jewish. As early as 1933, Variety was reporting on music rights organizations fighting over new entertainment industry rules coming out of Germany because “the Nazi powers barred the performances of compositions created by those of Jewish descent.” That was followed by the Nazi regime’s seizures of copyrights and property assets belonging to German show business figures.

One of their many entertainment industry victims was a hugely successful composer-songwriter-cabaret emcee from Vienna named Franz “Fritz” Grunbaum, who tragically died at Dachau in 1941. Many have cited Grunbaum’s work as a politically fearless Berlin cabaret emcee of the era and one of the key inspirations for the Joel Grey character in the Tony- and Oscar-winning hit and Liza Minnelli-starrer “Cabaret.”

And, irony of ironies, a piece from Grunbaum’s extensive modern art collection, an Egon Schiele drawing that had been seized by the Nazis during his internment at Dachau, wound up on the wall of “Cabaret” lyricist Fred Ebb’s New York apartment. Titled “Self-Portrait 1910,” the work could have been over Ebb’s shoulder as he wrote the songs that would be sung by the character based upon the owner of his drawing. Today, that drawing is owned by the Morgan Library in New York, a gift from the Ebb estate and a work whose ownership is currently being contested.

Unbeknownst to Ebb, the clouded title of the work began to become clearer in 2005, the year after his death. Clearer, but as New York attorney Raymond Dowd can attest, that Schiele, which Dowd continues to fight to have returned to Grunbaum’s heirs — like the estimated 50,000 pieces of Nazi-seized art that have never been returned to their rightful owners — remains surrounded by controversy and unending pall cast by that human catastrophe called the Holocaust.

Last week, in a New York courtroom, Dowd was there, as he has been since 2005, fighting for the claims of the Grunbaum Foundation as they try to recover the rights to artworks stolen from Grunbaum and his widow, Lily, more than 80 years ago. Two Schiele works, “Woman in a Black Pinafore” (1911) and “Woman Hiding Her Face” (1912) were ruled to rightfully belong to Grunbaum’s heirs in 2018 and this year they were ruled to have accrued prejudgment interest.

On Nov. 10, in front of the five judges of the Appellate Court in Manhattan, Dowd argued in the case of Reif vs Nagy that the current estimate of $750,000 in prejudgment interest was too low by half, but also pressed the point that the titleholders of the works were continuing to cloud ownership rights to them.

The recent court rulings are critical, says Dowd, because “these victories provide the kind of clarity that museums and art collectors cannot deny.”

In Dowd’s view, the importance of this year’s prejudgment interest ruling in this case can’t be overstated. “This is the first application of prejudgment interest in the art world,” explains Dowd, “which means the interest clock starts ticking after a legal demand and refusal process has been undertaken. This is a pressure point and one of many we now have. There is also the court of public opinion and there is a ground war at the board level of museums. You have trustees speaking out and saying, ‘We don’t want to be associated with this kind of activity.’”

While last week’s court case is good news for those on the side of restitution of rights to Nazi-looted artworks, the bleak reality is that these are small victories in a long war that has at times seemed exceedingly hopeless. The case of Grunbaum and his collection of Schiele’s works, roughly five paintings and 76 drawings out of a collection estimated to contain 449 pieces, all confiscated by the Nazis, provides a fascinating window into the daunting obstacles and the indefatigable efforts of heirs and their attorneys.

Judge Timothy Reif of the U.S. Court of Intl. Trade is one of the two trustees of the Leon Fischer Trust for the Life and Works of Fritz Grunbaum, the official beneficiaries of these recent court victories and any victories in the future. Reif began working on restitution efforts as a result of his family’s history with Grunbaum. That history dates back to the 1930s when Reif’s father, Paul, an aspiring musician, was aided by his distant cousin and then-superstar Grunbaum, even collaborating with him.

“In the 1950s and 1960s, my family began looking around for relatives of Fritz Grunbaum, because we didn’t want the royalties from his musical works going to the Germans or Austrian authorities. In 1998, when I was practicing law, I began researching and put together a full chronology and history, and it was much easier after the Cold War was over,” Reif says.

Designated heir Leon Fischer named Reif and financial services expert David Frankel as executors of his trust, and upon his passing more than a decade ago, the work that Fischer and Raymond Dowd began together in 2005 soon became the mission of Reif, Frankel and Dowd along with the Viennese probate researcher Herbert Gruber.

Gruber calls the events of the past year “the first real success” in the case and says he “expects other works to be returned” as a result of the recent court rulings. In addition to the team that has toiled for decades, he credits the Obama administration as well for passage of the Holocaust Expropriated Art Recovery Act of 2016, which regularized a federal statute of limitations of six years, beginning with the discovery of an object, during which claims can be made for the recovery of Nazi loot in the U.S.

But the dry statistics of court cases and their resulting financial wins are certainly far from the center of the Fritz Grunbaum story, as even a brief conversation with anyone associated with his murder and the theft of his estate makes abundantly clear.

In Reif’s view, “These people are gone. What the law can do is put us in their shoes and help us do the things they sought to do. Fritz Grunbaum was known for helping underprivileged artists have opportunities to work and create. We can use this opportunity to pay it forward.”

And for Dowd, the hard-fought victories are simply the fulfillment of a pledge. “I’m the Irish-Catholic son of an Irish-American New York fireman. I was a blank slate when I came to this case. I had no cultural preparation for what I learned when I began studying the mechanics of the Nazi looting operation. But my reaction was the same reaction the average person has, which is, ‘Are you telling me that this has still not been resolved?’ But we are on the right side of history. [New York County District Attorney] Robert Morgenthau told me to ‘keep on fighting’ and I promised him I would, and I intend to keep that promise.”
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