New York law enforcement authorities have seized three works of art believed to have been stolen from a Jewish art collector and entertainer during the Holocaust from museums in three different states.
Artworks by Austrian expressionist painter Egon Schiele were previously owned by Fritz Grünbaum, a cabaret performer and songwriter , died in Dachau concentration camp in 1941.
The artworks were seized Wednesday from the Art Institute of Chicago, the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh and the Allen Memorial Museum of Art at Oberlin College in Ohio.
A search warrant issued by the office of Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg said there was reasonable cause to believe the three pieces of art were stolen property.
These three works and several other items from the collection that Grünbaum began amassing in the 1920s have become the subject of civil lawsuits on behalf of his heirs. They believe artists are being coerced into giving up ownership of their artwork.
Manhattan prosecutors argued they had jurisdiction over all cases because the artworks were bought and sold at some point by Manhattan art dealers.
The son of a Jewish art dealer in what was then Moravia, Grünbaum studied law but in 1906 began performing in Vienna’s cabaret halls.
By the time Adolf Hitler came to power, Grünbaum was already a well-known performer in Vienna and Berlin, challenging the Nazi authorities in his works. He once quipped on a darkened stage: “I can’t see anything, I can’t see anything; I can’t see anything.” I must have stumbled into National Socialist culture. “
Grünbaum was arrested in 1938 and sent to Dachau concentration camp. On New Year’s Eve 1940, while seriously ill, he performed his last performance for his fellow inmates and subsequently died on January 14, 1941.
The three works seized from the Prague office were: “Russian Prisoners of War,” a watercolor and pencil on paper valued at $1.25 million, seized from the Art Institute; and a $1 million painting seized from the Carnegie Museum of Art. “Portrait of a Man,” pencil on paper; and “Black-Haired Girl,” a watercolor and pencil on paper valued at $1.5 million, purchased from Oberlin College of Art.
The pieces will remain at the museum until later shipped to the District Attorney’s Office.
The Art Institute said in a statement on Thursday, “We are confident that we have lawfully obtained and lawfully possess this work. The work is the subject of a civil lawsuit in federal court and the dispute is being prosecuted appropriately and we are defending our Legal ownership.”
The Carnegie Museum said it is committed to “acting in accordance with ethical, legal and professional requirements and norms” and will cooperate with authorities.
Oberlin College said in a statement that it is cooperating with investigators and “believes Oberlin College lawfully acquired Egon Schiele’s “The Girl with Dark Hair” in 1958 and that we legally own it.
“We believe Oberlin is not a target of the Manhattan District Attorney’s criminal investigation into this matter,” the statement added.
Before Wednesday’s arrest warrant was issued, Grunbaum’s heirs had filed civil claims against three museums and several other defendants, seeking the return of art they said they looted from Grunbaum.
They won a victory in 2018, when a New York judge ruled that two of Schiller’s works must be turned over to Grünbaum’s heirs under the Holocaust Forfeiture Recovery Act passed by Congress in 2016.
In that case, lawyers for London art dealer Richard Nagy said Nagy was the rightful owner of the works because Grünbaum’s sister-in-law Mathilde Lukács (Mathilde Lukacs) sold these works after his death.
But Judge Charles Ramos ruled that there was no evidence that Grünbaum voluntarily transferred the artwork to Lukács. “Signing with a firearm does not result in a valid transfer,” he wrote.
Raymond Dowd, an attorney for the heirs in the civil lawsuit, referred questions about the confiscation of the three works to the district attorney’s office.
The action by Bragg’s office comes after investigators said looted artifacts were seized from museums in Cleveland and Worcester, Massachusetts.
Douglas Cohen, a spokesman for the district attorney, said he could not comment on the seized artworks except to say they were part of an ongoing investigation.