Heirs Seek Return of Allegedly Nazi-Looted Egon Schiele Works

A judge has halted any sale until the claims are reviewed.

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

Distant descendants of a Jewish Holocaust victim seeking the restitution of a pair of watercolors by Egon Schiele got a boost to their cause this week when a Manhattan judge blocked a London-based art dealer from selling or transporting the works, reports the New York Daily News.

The paintings were for sale at Richard Nagy‘s booth at the fourth edition of the Salon of Art + Design fair at the Park Avenue Armory in New York, which ran from November 12–16. The two works reportedly did not find a buyer.

The restitution of art stolen or sold under duress during the Nazi regime continues to be a hot-button issue. Just this week, New York’s Museum of Modern Art returned a Ernst Ludwig Kirchner painting to the heirs of a Jewish German collector.

Egon Schiele Seated Woman with Bent Left Leg (Torso) (1917) Gouache and black crayon on paper (estimate: $1.2–1.8 million) Photo: Courtesy Sotheby's.

Egon Schiele
Seated Woman with Bent Left Leg (Torso)
(1917) Gouache and black crayon on paper
(estimate: $1.2–1.8 million) Photo: Courtesy Sotheby’s.

The heir’s of Jewish art collector Fritz Grünbaum, a Viennese cabaret performer, alleged that he was the owner of Schiele’s Woman in a Black Pinafore and Woman Hiding Her Face. The paintings were reportedly among 400 artworks said to be worth worth a collective $5 million that his wife, Elisabeth, turned over to the Nazis when he was sent to the Dachau concentration camp. He died there in 1941, and Elisabeth died in another camp the following year.

Timothy Reif and David Fraenkel, the co-heirs of the Grünbaum estate, filed suit against Nagy on Tuesday in Manhattan Supreme Court.

“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. 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],” Nagy told the Daily News.

In 2005, a Schiele drawing, Seated Woman With a Bent Left Leg (Torso) (1917), became embroiled in a seven-year court battle. Federal courts ruled against the heirs in 2012, declaring the sale legal. The Art Dealers Association of America (ADAA), the Society of London Art Dealers (SLAD), and Nagy lobbied for the ruling.

When the drawing was sold this past fall at Sotheby’s New York for $1.3 million, the Grünbaum heirs didn’t see a penny, but they were compensated for the $2.97 million sale of Schiele’s Town on the Blue River the same month at Christie’s New York.

Egon Schiele (1890-1918), Stadt am blauen Fluss (Krumau), gouache, watercolor, metallic paint and black Conté crayon on paper, executed in 191 800,000 – 1,200,000

Egon Schiele (1890-1918), Stadt am blauen Fluss (Krumau), gouache, watercolor, metallic paint and black Conté crayon on paper, executed in 191
800,000 – 1,200,000

Nagy has been in business since 1980; for decades, he has worked to bring Schiele to a wider audience. With this recent case, he contends that Grünbaum’s sister-in-law, art collector Matilda Lukacs, sold the paintings in 1956, and that two arbitration boards in Vienna have ruled against the family’s heirs in the past “stating that there was no evidence of Nazi looting.”

“This is not a case of Nazi theft,” Nagy insisted in a statement emailed to artnet News. “If there is any case to be answered it is rather a family estate dispute.”

However, Reif and Fraenkel’s lawyer, Raymond Down, disagrees. “This is an ironclad case,” he told the New York Post. “The evidence of Nazi looting is overwhelming.”

A hearing is scheduled for December 1 in Manhattan.


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