The announcement was made by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, who was instrumental in the recovery of these artworks.
Fritz Grünbaum, an Austrian-Jewish cabaret performer, had his art collection seized by the Nazi regime during the Holocaust. The collection comprised drawings by renowned Austrian artist Egon Schiele. These artworks were later discovered in the possession of the Museum of Modern Art, the Ronald Lauder Collection, the Morgan Library, the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, and the Vally Sabarsky Trust in Manhattan. The New York DA's Antiquities Tracking Unit seized these pieces earlier this year.
Upon being presented with evidence of the Nazi theft, the institutions and estates voluntarily surrendered the artworks. "Fritz Grünbaum was a man of incredible depth and spirit, and his memory lives on through the artworks that are finally being returned to his relatives," Bragg said. He expressed hope that this act of restitution would serve as a reminder of the atrocities committed by the Nazis and the enduring impact on the victims' families.
Among the seven pieces returned during a ceremony on Monday was "I Love Antithesis," one of four inscribed self-portraits Schiele completed while imprisoned in 1912. This piece, valued at $2.75 million, was seized from the Ronald Lauder Collection. Another significant piece, "Portrait of a Boy," valued at $780,000, was returned from the Vally Sabarsky Trust.
Other returned pieces include "Standing Woman" from the MoMA, valued at $1.5 million; "Girl Putting on Shoe" from the MoMA, valued at $1 million; "Self Portrait" from the Morgan Library, valued at $1 million; "Portrait of the Artist’s Wife, Edith" from the SBMA, valued at $1 million; and "Seated Woman" from the Vally Sabarsky Trust, valued at $1.5 million.
The evidence presented to the institutions revealed that Grünbaum owned hundreds of pieces of art, including over 80 Schiele drawings. Grünbaum was captured by the Nazis in 1938, during the invasion of Austria. While in custody, he transferred power of attorney to his wife, Elisabeth Grünbaum, who was forced to surrender the entire collection to the Nazis.
The collection was inventoried by Nazi party member Franz Kieslinger and impounded in a Nazi-controlled warehouse in September 1938. The artworks were subsequently auctioned or sold to finance the Nazi Party. Their whereabouts remained unknown until the 1950s when they resurfaced at a Swiss Auction House, Gutekunst & Klipstein.
Hildebrand Gurlitt, Hitler’s personal art curator, was authorized to sell the "degenerate" artwork seized by the Nazi Government. Decades after the war, Eberhard Kornfeld, the owner of Gutekunst & Klipstein, received hundreds of Nazi-looted artworks stolen from Holocaust victims from Gurlitt’s son, Cornelius.
Kornfeld sold most of Grünbaum’s Schiele drawings to Otto Kallir in 1956, who was the owner of the New York City-based Gallery Galerie St. Etienne. Kallir was aware that the artworks belonged to Grünbaum, having seen them in Grünbaum’s Vienna apartment in 1928.
The drawings were transported to Manhattan and sold to private collectors and institutions before being seized by Bragg’s office. Judge Timothy Reif, a relative of Fritz Grünbaum, lauded Bragg and his team for their efforts in recovering the artworks.
He said, "Their righteous and courageous collaboration in the pursuit of justice — unique among prosecutors and law enforcement in this entire nation, if not the world — shine a bright light for all to follow." He added that he looked forward to the District Attorney’s continued pursuit of justice in this matter.