Authorities Argue Egon Schiele at Art Institute of Chicago was Nazi Loot - The World News

Authorities Argue Egon Schiele at Art Institute of Chicago was Nazi Loot

New York authorities issued an official order last week to seize a work by Egon Schiele from the Art Institute of Chicago. Officials of Manhattan’s antiquities trafficking unit are investigating the circumstances around the work’s acquisition to the museum and its sale history as part of a broader legal inquiry into Nazi looted art, and now claim the work was stolen.

The order for the return of Schiele’s Russian War Prisoner (1916), is the latest in a string of disputes carried out by the heirs of the Austrian Jewish collector and cabaret performer Fritz Grunbaum. His surviving relatives are seeking to recover 80 works dispersed from Grunbaum’s collection before he was imprisoned in 1938 and forced to relinquish his assets to Third Reich officials. He died in the Dachau concentration camp in 1941.

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View of the Art Institute of Chicago building in Chicago, United States on October 17, 2022. (Photo by Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Various works from the collection, which included 81 Schieles, circulated among art dealers and entered museum collections in Europe after his death. Recorded sales of the works after the collector’s death date back to 1956, when a Swiss art dealer, Eberhard Kornfeld, offered 63 of them for private sale, after acquiring them from Grunbaum’s relative, Mathilde Lukacs-Herzl.

Heirs have disputed the legality of Kornfeld’s transactions with Lukacs-Herzel. In the late 1990s, Kornfeld, who died in August 2023 at the age of 2023, was questioned about the sale and in 2011, during a case involving another Schiele work owned by Grunbaum, a federal court in Manhattan found Kornfeld’s account credible and ruled the collection had not been “looted” by Nazis, but sold legally by his surviving relatives.

The museum has denied the order’s arguments that the work was looted, saying that it has researched the work extensively, citing the 2011 ruling that the Grunbaum collection was sold legally as evidence of its rightful ownership.

“Federal court has explicitly ruled that the Grünbaum’s Schiele art collection was “not looted” and “remained in the Grünbaum family’s possession” and was sold by Fritz Grünbaum’s sister-in-law Mathilde Lukacs in 1956,” said Megan Michienzi, Executive Director of Public Affairs at the Art Institute of Chicago, said in a statement to ARTnews. “If we had this work unlawfully, we would return it, but that is not the case here.”

The 160-page order, filed in Manhattan on February 22, details the trafficking of artworks illegally procured by Nazis to the United States. The argument, penned by Matthew Bogdanos, an New York assistant district attorney and reviewed by ARTnews, centers Kornfeld, the deceased operator of a Swiss auction house and Otto Kallir, the late owner of a New York gallery who died in 1978, as parties in a criminal network. The state argues the two concealed details around Nazi-inventoried art sales as part of their business dealings.

The document states the work’s current value is $1.25 million.

In September, after Manhattan authorities first secured a warrant to recover the artwork, the Art Institute requested a seizure-in-place, allowing the work to be kept in the museum for a period of 60 days. Prosecutors granted an extension ahead of the latest order, giving the museum a several-month window to respond ahead of an oral argument hearing scheduled to take place this spring. The date of the oral argument has not yet been disclosed.

Grünbaum’s heirs filed a previous civil suit over Russian War Prisoner in a Southern District New York court, but were unsuccessful in getting the work restituted. The Art Institute litigated the claim in a federal court, where a judge ruled in its favor in November 2023. 

The Antiquities Trafficking Unit of the district attorney’s officially opened its investigation into the fate of the collection in December 2022, and has since seized ten Schiele drawings from various museums and private collections. Seven of those works were returned in September 2023.

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