Art Institute of Chicago Can Keep Disputed Egon Schiele Work, Court Rules Once Again - The World News

Art Institute of Chicago Can Keep Disputed Egon Schiele Work, Court Rules Once Again

The Art Institute of Chicago has secured a temporary legal win in an extensive dispute with the heirs of Fritz Grünbaum, an Austrian Jewish art collector who was disenfranchised during World War II.

In a recent decision filed on February 28 Judge John G. Koeltl sided with the museum, enabling it to continue to hold Egon Schiele’s painting Russian War Prisoner (1916) in its collection. The judge dismissed a motion the collector’s relatives had filed, asking the court to reconsider a claim from the fall that halted their attempt to get the painting restituted.

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Detail of military antique.

The Art Institute of Chicago previously litigated the claim in a federal court, where a judge ruled in its favor in November 2023.

Grünbaum’s descendants, Timothy Reif, David Fraenkel, and Milos Vavra, have tried to recover the work, a portrait of a seated male soldier, alleging that it was illegally acquired and inventoried by Nazi officials after Grünbaum was forced to relinquish his assets and later imprisoned.

According to court documents reviewed by ARTnews, Koetl denied suggestions that the museum acquired the work illegally. “All of the allegations in the amended complaint support the idea that the defendant is a good-faith possessor,” the latest decision states.

A separate legal development in New York over the work’s return is increasing pressure on the Chicago museum. Last month, the Manhattan District Attorney’s office, which oversees claims related to cultural property, argued that the work was stolen property. The move is a part of a broader probe by New York officials into recovering art that was confiscated during World War II.

The painting is currently being held at the museum under a temporary seizure-in-place order.

In the filing, Koeltl rejected the heirs’ request for the court to reconsider the November decision, stating that the heirs’ claims lapsed by 2009 under state law. He also said their claim could not be revived by the 2016 Holocaust Expropriated Art Recovery (HEAR) Act, a law that aimed to ease barriers to heirs seeking claims on art confiscated during World War II.

Reif and two family members tried to change the starting date for their claims to 1966, when the museum first acquired the artwork. The court contended that the changes failed to address the fundamental issue of the statute of limitations. An initial claim for the work’s restitution was filed in 2006.

In a statement to ARTnews, Megan Michienzi, a representative for the Art Institute of Chicago, said that the latest decision “specifically rejected” implications that the museum acquired the work unlawfully. Michienzi stated, “We have always acted in good faith. If we had this work unlawfully, we would return it, but that is not the case here, as is made clear in the latest federal court ruling.”

But Raymond Dowd, a lawyer for Grünbaum’s heirs, denied that the AIC’s claims that this decision “reaffirms” the museum’s legal title to the Schiele painting, citing a New York law that recognizes the rightful owner of stolen art, even if the legal remedy is no longer available due to time constraints. He added that the heirs “will continue to pursue all available remedies to recover artworks stolen from Fritz Grünbaum, including Russian War Prisoner (1916).”

The dispute is still ongoing. According to the most recent court documents, the museum filed a counterclaim asking Koeltl to grant it legal title to Russian Prisoner. The Art Institute of Chicago has until March 13 to dismiss the claim, which would end the current suit. “The ball is in AIC’s court now to prove that it has good title,” Dowd said.

Its unclear to what extent the most recent order enables the museum to hold the work long-term.

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