Lawsuit Over Egon Schiele Artworks Gets Boost From New Legislation

The court will decide whether the collection was seized by the Nazis.

Egon Schiele, Woman Hiding her Face (1912).
Photo: courtesy of Richard Nagy.

The descendants of Holocaust victim Fritz Grünbaum, an Austrian Jewish entertainer who was murdered in 1941 in Dachau, have sought the restitution of a pair of watercolors by Egon Schiele for decades.

Now, claiming that previous cases were settled on “legal technicalities,” three of Grünbaum’s heirs have invoked the new Holocaust Expropriated Art Recovery Act, which US Congress passed this last December, in a recent lawsuit to pursue Woman in a Black Pinafore (1911) and Woman Hiding Her Face (1912), according to the New York Times.

Known as the HEAR Act, the legislation standardizes the statute of limitations by which heirs of stolen artworks may file legal claims.

Grünbaum’s heirs have repeatedly argued that his 449-piece collection was confiscated by the Nazis during World War II. However, two arbitration boards in Vienna have previously ruled against this claim, stating that there was no evidence of Nazi looting. Some dealers and collectors have contended that the artworks were inventoried by the Nazis but not seized, and that in 1956, Grünbaum’s sister-in-law, art collector Matilda Lukacs, sold some 53 artworks—the two Schieles among them—to a Swiss art dealer.

But Raymond Dowd, a lawyer for the Grünbaum heirs, counters that the circumstances of the 1956 transaction have “never been fully explored,” according to the New York Times.

In November 2015, Dowd filed a lawsuit after the descendants have learned that Richard Nagy, a London art dealer and Schiele specialist, was offering the two watercolors at the fourth edition of the Salon of Art + Design fair in New York. A Manhattan judge blocked Nagy from selling or transporting the works.

“There is no question that I support the return of property looted by Nazis to their rightful owners but this is not the case here,” Nagy told the New York Daily News. “I’m extremely sympathetic to such claims as my own family had to leave Hungary under duress after the Anschluss [the 1938 union of Austria and Nazi Germany].”

In 2005, the heirs pursued the restitution of another Schiele drawing, Seated Woman With a Bent Left Leg (Torso) (1917), in a seven-year court battle. Federal courts ruled against them in 2012, as too much time had passed since they made their claim. The Art Dealers Association of America (ADAA), the Society of London Art Dealers (SLAD), and Nagy lobbied for the ruling.

The drawing, which was bought by Boston business man David Bakalar for $4,300, was sold at auction for $1.3 million at Sotheby’s New York.

However, the president and legal counsel of the Commission on Art Recovery, Agnes Peresztegi, said she would welcome the use of the new law in deciding the fate of Grünbaum’s Schieles.

Only time will tell whether the HEAR Act might help boost the heirs’ claims, but their lawyer seems confident that experts “will persuade the court that the evidence shows that Fritz Grunbaum was a victim of Nazi art looting,” Dowd told the New York Times.

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