Art Institute to defend its ownership of watercolor that New York authorities contend Nazis stole during Holocaust

Chicago Sun Times 11 January 2024
By Emmanuel Cammarillo

Several of Austrian Expressionist Egon Schiele’s other works have already been returned by museums and private owners, including a drawing that was in the collection of billionaire Ronald Lauder.

The Art Institute of Chicago will soon get to make its case that it is the rightful owner of a $1.25 million watercolor that prosecutors in New York say was stolen from a Jewish cabaret star killed during the Holocaust.

Oral arguments in the case are set to begin April 3, according to a spokesperson for Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s office, which in September issued warrants seizing three of Egon Schiele’s works.

One was “Russian War Prisoner,” a watercolor on paper, at the Art Institute.

“Russian War Prisoner” by Egon Schiele

The two other pieces — “Portrait of a Man” at the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh and “Girl With Black Hair” at the Allen Memorial Art Museum at Oberlin College in Ohio — will be returned to the heirs of Fritz Grünbaum, who previously owned all three works.

Grünbaum was a cabaret performer and songwriter who was killed at the Dachau concentration camp in 1941. His heirs believe he was forced to hand over his collection under duress.

The spokesperson for the district attorney’s office said a judge granted the application to officially turn over “Portrait of a Man” and “Girl With Black Hair” to Grünbaum’s heirs on Monday after the museums consented to their return.

But “Russian War Prisoner” remains in the collection of the Art Institute. A spokesperson for the museum said in a statement that it had done “extensive research” on the provenance of the work and that officials were “confident” in their lawful ownership of the piece.

“Fritz Grünbaum’s sister-in-law, Mathilde Lukacs, inherited Egon Schiele’s ‘Russian War Prisoner’ and subsequently sold it in 1956,” the spokesperson said.

The spokesperson also pointed to a yearslong federal court case involving another piece of Schiele’s artwork that ultimately went against Grünbaum’s heirs in 2012 and raised questions as to whether his collection was actually stolen.

Similar arguments were made in court by an attorney representing an art dealer in a case involving two of Schiele’s works in New York in 2018. The judge dismissed the contention that Grünbaum voluntarily relinquished his collection in the first place and ordered the works returned to his heirs.

According to Bragg’s office, an investigation “has revealed that Grünbaum’s collection, particularly his 80-plus works by Egon Schiele, were systematically stolen from Grünbaum after he was imprisoned (and ultimately murdered) in the Dachau Concentration Camp.”

The drawings were then laundered through Switzerland before being sold to a gallery owner in New York, the application states. Manhattan prosecutors say they have jurisdiction in all of the cases because the artworks were bought and sold by Manhattan art dealers at some point.

Before the warrants were issued in September, the Grünbaum heirs had filed civil claims against the three museums and several other defendants seeking the return of artworks they said were looted from Grünbaum.

In November, a judge granted the Art Institute’s motion to dismiss the suit because the heirs filed claims after the statute of limitations had expired, according to a court order.

Grünbaum’s heirs demanded that the Art Institute return “Russian War Prisoner” in January 2006, but the museum declined, according to the court order. The statute of limitations expired in 2009, “long before” the heirs filed claims in New York in December 2022.

Several of Schiele’s other artworks have already been returned, including one that was owned by billionaire Ronald Lauder, heir to the Estee Lauder cosmetics fortune.

“Russian War Prisoner” is valued at around $1.25 million. The Art Institute bought the piece in 1966 for an unknown sum, its website states. “Portrait of a Man,” a pencil on paper drawing, is valued at $1 million. “Girl With Black Hair,” a watercolor and pencil on paper work is valued at $1.5 million.

According to the Art Institute’s website, “Russian War Prisoner” is currently not on exhibit. It has been shown in at least eight exhibitions internationally. Among the exhibits was “Great Drawings from The Art Institute of Chicago: The Harold Joachim Years 1958-1983,” in 1985 at the Art Institute and later traveling to the Saint Louis Art Museum.

Schiele is well known for his emotionally charged, bluntly realistic and often sexually explicit works of elongated, distorted figures. In 1912, he was convicted of showing erotic art in a place accessible to children and imprisoned, and his works were later deemed “degenerate art” by the Nazis.

Because his drawings and paintings were avidly acquired by Jewish collectors whose holdings were then looted by the Nazis, many restitution claims have been made surrounding his work.

Another painting, “Portrait of Wally” (1912), was seized by authorities after a 1997-98 Schiele show in New York. After a much publicized legal dispute, Vienna’s Leopold Museum reached a $19 million settlement in 2010 with heirs of its former owner.

In a similar case, a federal appeals court ruled Tuesday against a Jewish family that sought to get back a painting that was stolen from their family by the Nazis in 1939 and is now in the possession of a Spanish museum, according to a report in the Los Angeles Times.

The painting, “Rue Saint-Honore in the Afternoon, Effect of Rain” by Camille Pissarro, once hung in the apartment of Lilly Cassirer in Berlin before she was forced to hand it over to the Nazis in exchange for her freedom, the report says.

The Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection in Madrid purchased the work and other pieces in 1993 from an art collector, according to the report. The U.S. 9th District Court of Appeals determined the museum had gained “prescriptive title” when it purchased it.

The dispute over the Schiele drawings isn’t the first time that the Art Institute has had to answer questions on the issue of origins.

Last March, an investigation by ProPublica and Crain’s Chicago Business found evidence that several pieces in its large collection of South Asian art may have been stolen and illegally exported.

The Art Institute has a page on its website dedicated to its process of researching the provenance of a work.

“We seek to establish an object’s chain of ownership from the moment it leaves the artist’s hands to its entry in the museum’s collection,” the website states.

It adds that researching provenance can be a challenge because wars, world events, passage of time or other factors can create gaps in the records of some art pieces.

“For these reasons, incomplete provenance information does not necessarily mean that a work has been tainted by the events of the Nazi era or that it has been looted from a country,” the site states.

Museums across the globe have been grappling with the issue of provenance. Last month, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art said it would return more than a dozen pieces of artwork tied to looting to Cambodia and Thailand.

In August 2022, the Horniman Museum and Gardens in London said it would return dozens of artifacts that were looted more than a century ago to the Nigerian government.
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