Stolen Egon Schiele Artworks Returned to Heirs of Fritz Grünbaum, Jewish Art Collector

By the edhat staff

In a moving ceremony held in New York, seven drawings by Austrian expressionist Egon Schiele were returned to the heirs of their rightful owner, Fritz Grünbaum, whose art collection was confiscated by the Nazis during World War II. The restitution of these early 20th-century artworks marks a significant step towards rectifying the historical injustice inflicted upon Grünbaum and his family.

Manhattan District Attorney’s Office’s Trafficking Antiquities unit played a crucial role in facilitating the return of the stolen artworks. Various institutions and collectors, including the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, voluntarily surrendered the pieces after being presented with evidence of their illicit acquisition. District Attorney Alvin Bragg, Jr. stated that the restitution was a testament to the ongoing commitment to right the wrongs of the past.

“By recovering these long lost artworks, our law enforcement authorities have achieved a measure of justice with excellence, unfailing resolve, and courage,” said Grünbaum heir Timothy Reif.

Fritz Grünbaum, a renowned Jewish Austrian cabaret performer, was a prominent figure in 1930s Vienna. His routines openly criticized Nazism and Adolf Hitler, ultimately leading to his banishment and arrest by the Nazis in 1938. Tragically, Grünbaum’s wife, Elisabeth, was forced to hand over his extensive art collection, which included hundreds of pieces, to the Nazis.

Imprisoned at Dachau concentration camp, Grünbaum was murdered in January 1941. The following year, Elisabeth was also murdered in a concentration camp in Minsk, Belarus.

Sketch of “Portrait of the Artist’s Wife, Edith” by Egon Schiele. Santa Barbara Musuem of Art returned the sketch to heirs of their rightful owner (Image: SBMA)

The collection encompassed 81 Schiele artworks, primarily self-portraits and drawings of Schiele’s wife, Edith. Notably, this included the vibrant watercolor painting “I Love Antithesis” and the famous “Girl Putting on Shoe,” previously held by MoMA.

The artworks were labeled as “degenerate” by the Nazis, who looted countless pieces under this classification during World War II to raise funds for their cause.

Efforts to identify the rightful owners of stolen artworks have persisted for decades, and the return of Grünbaum’s Schiele collection represents a significant triumph. Over the years, the pieces changed hands multiple times after being seized and sold by the Nazis, eventually ending up in the possession of various institutions such as MoMA, the Morgan Library, the Ronald Lauder Collection, the Vally Sabarsky Trust, and the Santa Barbara Museum of Art.

The seven pieces of artwork returned are valued between $2-4 million. “Portrait of the Artist’s Wife” that was held by the Santa Barbara Museum of Art has been valued at $800,000.

A lawsuit was filed against the Santa Barbara Museum of Art last year claiming “Portrait of the Artist’s Wife” was held by New York’s Galerie St. Etienne from1956 until about 1966 before being wrongfully removed from the county. The museum’s website previously stated the drawing was a gift from Wright S. Ludington, an art collector and one of the founding members of the museum.

The lawsuit was dropped ahead of Bragg’s announcement that the piece, along with six others, had been returned.

While additional Schiele pieces have recently been seized from three US museums in ongoing efforts to reunite the entirety of Grünbaum’s collection, further investigation is required before their restitution.

Six of the returned Schiele artworks will be sold at auction to support the Grünbaum Fischer Foundation, a scholarship program for young musicians. This initiative aims to ensure that the legacy of Fritz Grünbaum lives on and acts as a staunch rebuttal to Hitler’s attempt to erase his existence from history.

“When viewing these artworks, imagine Fritz and Elisabeth in their lively Vienna apartment singing and dancing and cracking jokes. Remembering their lives defeats Hitler’s plan to erase this brave Jewish man’s name from the book of history,” said Rief.

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Edhat Staff

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