NEW YORK — New York prosecutors on Friday returned two works of art they say were stolen from a Jewish artist and collector killed by the Nazis in the Holocaust.
The artworks were delivered to museums in Pittsburgh and Ohio, but prosecutors are still fighting in court to recover a third artwork by the same artist, Austrian expressionist Egon Schiele, which was also seized at a museum in Chicago.
In Manhattan on Friday, the estate of Holocaust victim Fritz Grünbaum accepted “Portrait of a Man,” delivered by the Carnegie Museum of Art, and “Girl with Black Hair,” handed over by Oberlin College’s Allen Memorial Museum of Art. Prosecutors valued the two pieces collectively at about $2.5 million.
Ten of Schiele’s works have now been returned to the family, but “Russian Prisoner of War” remains at the Art Institute of Chicago, where the work was allegedly purchased legally.
Grünbaum was the son of a Jewish art dealer and law school student who began performing in cabarets in Vienna in 1906. When the Nazis came to power, he mocked them and once said on a dark stage: “I can’t see anything. not just one thing; “I must have stumbled upon National Socialist culture.”
In 1938, he was captured by Nazi authorities, who prepared a series of documents. Manhattan prosecutors say they forced him to give his wife power of attorney and then forced her to sign over works of art, including some 80 Schiele works, to Nazi officials. Some of the artworks are said to have been sold to finance the Nazi war effort. Elizabeth and Fritz Grünbaum died in concentration camps.
Prosecutors say the works resurfaced in Switzerland in 1956 as part of a shady art deal with members of the Nazi regime, which led to their sale in New York galleries.
On Friday, one of Grünbaum’s heirs thanked leaders at Oberlin College and the Carnegie Institution, saying they “did the right thing.”
“This is a victory for justice and the memory of a courageous artist, art collector, and anti-Fascist,” Timothy Reif, Grünbaum’s great-great-nephew and a federal judge in New York City, said in a statement released by the Justice Department office. Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg. “As the heirs of Fritz Grünbaum, we are pleased that this man, who fought for what was right in his time, continues to make the world more just.”
A New York judge ruled in 2018 that two other works by Schiele should be handed over to Grünbaum’s heirs under the Holocaust Nationalized Recovery Act passed by Congress.
In this case, art dealer Richard Nagy said that Grünbaum was the rightful owner of the works because his sister-in-law sold the works after his death. However, the judge in the case ruled that there was no evidence that Grünbaum voluntarily gave them to him and wrote that it was a “signature at gunpoint.”
But the Art Institute of Chicago opposes this. And “Russian Prisoner of War,” a pencil and watercolor work, was allegedly purchased legally.
“We have conducted extensive research into the provenance history of this work and are confident that we have legal title to it,” said Megan Michienzi, a spokeswoman for the Art Institute of Chicago.
Michienzi pointed to a 2010 ruling by another federal judge, saying it “clearly ruled that Grünbaum’s Schiele art collection was ‘not looted’ and ‘remained in the possession of the Grünbaum family’ and was sold by Fritz Grünbaum’s sister-in-law.”
Reif and his relatives were fighting a separate federal civil lawsuit to get the job reinstated. The Art Institute of Chicago withdrew the case on technical grounds in November, successfully arguing that, unlike the Nagy case, the family had missed the filing deadline under the Holocaust Expropriated Relief Act.
After that lawsuit was dismissed, Bragg’s office asked a Manhattan court earlier this month to allow the return of the artwork.