Art Institute showed ‘willful blindness’ in buying Nazi-looted art, NY prosecutors say

Chicago Sun Times 28 February 2024
By Emmanuel Camarillo

The museum denies the allegations, contending Fritz Grünbaum’s sister-in-law inherited Egon Schiele’s ‘Russian War Prisoner’ after Grünbaum was killed at Dachau and sold the drawing along with other of Schiele’s works to an art dealer.

The Art Institute of Chicago has been accused of exhibiting "willful blindness" to evidence suggesting it was purchasing artwork stolen during the Holocaust when it acquired a drawing that authorities say was looted by the Nazis.

The damning allegations were made in court documents filed in New York last week that argue the Art Institute benefited from a decadeslong "conspiracy of silence" over the drawing "Russian War Prisoner" by Egon Schiele.

The 160-page filing by the Manhattan district attorney's office lays out its case contending the work of art was stolen by the Nazis from cabaret star Fritz Grunbaum and later laundered through art dealers before arriving in New York.

It accuses the Art Institute of failing to engage in "reasonable inquiry" as to the origins of the piece when it purchased it in 1966 and again decades later when questions arose about its provenance.

The Art Institute denies the allegations, contending museum officials are “confident” they legally own the piece.

Grunbaum's heirs have for years sought the return of "Russian War Prisoner" and other pieces of his art collection, which the performer and songwriter was forced to turn over to Nazi authorities in 1938 when he was sent to the Dachau concentration camp. Grünbaum died there in 1941.

Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s office seized 10 of Schiele's drawings that were once in Grünbaum's possession and identified as stolen property by the office's Antiquities Trafficking Unit.

Nine of those works — including pieces that were at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Santa Barbara Museum of Art in California — have been returned to Grünbaum's heirs, leaving the Art Institute as the lone holdout. An 11th piece was surrendered to heirs directly by an individual, according to court documents.

Prosecutors say they have jurisdiction in all of the cases because the artworks were bought and sold by Manhattan art dealers at some point.

The Art Institute said in a statement that it had done "extensive research" on the provenance of the work, and officials were “confident” in their lawful ownership of the piece and would continue to defend the museum's position in court.
© website copyright Central Registry 2024