Three works of art believed to have been stolen from a Jewish art collector and artist during the Holocaust were seized from museums in three different states by New York law enforcement.
All of Austrian Expressionist Egon Schiele’s works were previously owned by cabaret artist and songwriter Fritz Grünbaum, who died in the Dachau concentration camp in 1941.
The work was acquired Wednesday at the Art Institute of Chicago, the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh and the Allen Memorial Museum of Art at Oberlin College in Ohio.
Warrants issued by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s office state that there are reasonable grounds to believe the three works of art were stolen.
Three works and several others in the collection, which Grünbaum began assembling in the 1920s, are currently the subject of civil lawsuits on behalf of his heirs. They believe that the artist was forced to give up ownership of the artworks under duress.
Manhattan prosecutors believe they have jurisdiction over all the cases because the artworks were bought and sold by Manhattan art dealers at some point.
The son of a Jewish art dealer then living in Moravia, Grünbaum studied law but began performing in cabarets in Vienna in 1906.
Grünbaum, a well-known artist in Vienna and Berlin when Adolf Hitler came to power, was challenging Nazi authorities in his work. He once quipped from a dark stage: “I can’t see anything, not a single thing; “I must have stumbled upon National Socialist culture.”
Grünbaum was arrested and sent to Dachau in 1938. While seriously ill, he gave his last performance in front of his fellow prisoners on New Year’s Eve 1940 and died on January 14, 1941.
The three works seized from Bragg’s office are: “Russian Prisoner of War,” a collection of watercolors and pencils on paper valued at $1.25 million, seized from the Art Institute; “Portrait of a Man,” a pen-on-paper drawing worth $1 million seized from the Carnegie Museum of Art; and “The Girl with Black Hair,” a $1.5 million watercolor and pencil work on paper acquired from Oberlin.
The works will remain in the museums until transferred to the district attorney’s office at a later date.
The Art Institute said in a statement on Thursday: “We are confident that we have lawfully acquired and legally own this work. This piece is the subject of a civil lawsuit in federal court, where this dispute is properly litigated and we also defend our legal title.”
The Carnegie Museum said it was committed to “acting in accordance with ethical, legal and professional requirements and norms” and would cooperate with authorities.
In a statement, Oberlin said it was cooperating with investigators and is “confident that Oberlin College legally acquired Egon Schiele’s The Black-Haired Girl in 1958 and that we legally own it.”
“We believe Oberlin is not the target of the Manhattan District Attorney’s criminal investigation into this matter,” the statement said.
Before the arrest warrants were issued Wednesday, Grünbaum’s heirs had filed a civil lawsuit against three museums and several other defendants seeking the return of artworks they say were looted from Grünbaum.
They won a victory in 2018 when a New York judge ruled that two of Schiele’s works must be handed over to Grünbaum’s heirs under the Holocaust Nationalized Recovery Act passed by Congress in 2016.
In this case, Richard Nagy’s lawyer for the art dealer in London said that Nagy was the real owner of the works because he sold them after the death of Grünbaum’s sister-in-law, Mathilde Lukacs.
However, Judge Charles Ramos ruled that there was no evidence that Grünbaum voluntarily transferred the artworks to Lukacs. “A signature signed at gunpoint cannot constitute a valid transfer,” he wrote.
Raymond Dowd, the heirs’ attorney in the civil case, referred questions about the seizure of the three works to the district attorney’s office on Wednesday.
The actions taken by Bragg’s office followed the seizure of what investigators said were antiques looted from museums in Cleveland and Worcester, Massachusetts.
Douglas Cohen, a spokesman for the district attorney, said he could not comment on the seized artworks other than to say they were part of an ongoing investigation.