D.A.’s Office Has Now Returned Ten Egon Schiele Drawings to the Relatives of Fritz Grünbaum
Pictured: “Portrait of a Man”
Manhattan District Attorney Alvin L. Bragg, Jr., and Erin Keegan, Acting Special Agent in Charge at Homeland Security Investigations, New York, today announced the return of two more artworks to the family of Fritz Grünbaum, an Austrian-Jewish cabaret performer whose art collection was stolen by the Nazi regime. The drawings, both by the Austrian artist Egon Schiele, were seized by the Office’s Antiquities Trafficking Unit pursuant to court-authorized search warrants in 2023:
- “Girl with Black Hair” from the Allen Museum of Art at Oberlin College and valued at approximately $1.5 million.
- “Portrait of a Man” from the Carnegie Museum of Art and valued at approximately $1 million.
The Office and HSI have now returned ten pieces of Nazi-looted art that were stolen from Mr. Grünbaum. In September 2023, the Office returned seven Schiele artworks from the Museum of Modern Art; The Ronald Lauder Collection; The Morgan Library; The Santa Barbara Museum of Art; and the Vally Sabarsky Trust in Manhattan. An additional piece was surrendered by the collector Michael Lesh directly to the family in October 2023.
“I am thrilled that two more drawings are now being returned to the relatives of Fritz Grünbaum. The fact that we have been able to return ten pieces that were looted by the Nazis speaks to the dogged advocacy of his relatives to ensure these beautiful artworks could finally return home. Let us use this moment as an opportunity to honor and preserve the extraordinary legacy of Mr. Grünbaum – a life that we should never forget,” said District Attorney Bragg.
“This is a victory for justice, and the memory of a brave artist, art collector, and opponent of Fascism. As the heirs of Fritz Grünbaum, we are gratified that this man who fought for what was right in his own time continues to make the world fairer decades after his tragic death. And we are deeply gratified that the Office of the Manhattan District Attorney is pursuing what is right, even when it is not easy. We also express our deep appreciation to the trustees and leadership of Oberlin College and the Carnegie Institute that did the right thing,” said Judge Timothy Reif, relative of Fritz Grünbaum.
“While we can never erase the tragedies that befell Fritz and Elisabeth Grünbaum, today we take a momentous step in memorializing those whose lives were marred by one of history’s most poignant atrocities. This repatriation is a testament to the commitment of Homeland Security Investigations’ Cultural Property, Art, and Antiquities unit,” said Acting Special Agent in Charge Erin Keegan. “I commend HSI New York’s special agents and our law enforcement partners for proving time and time again that their dedication to justice knows no bounds.”
Pictured: “Girl with Black Hair”
According to evidence presented to the institutions returning the two pieces, Fritz Grünbaum possessed hundreds of artworks, including more than 80 works by Egon Schiele. He was captured by the Nazis in 1938 after their annexation of Austria and was forced to execute a power of attorney while he was imprisoned in Dachau in favor of his wife, Elisabeth Grünbaum, who was later compelled to hand over his entire art collection to Nazi officials. Both Grünbaums died in concentration camps during the war.
Grünbaum’s collection was inventoried by art historian and Nazi-appointed Franz Kieslinger and then impounded in the Nazi-controlled warehouse Schenker & Co A.G. in September 1938. All works by Schiele had been declared degenerate and many of the confiscated works were auctioned or sold abroad to finance the Nazi war machine in a program overseen by Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels. After Grünbaum’s Schiele collection was taken by the Nazi’s in 1938, it did not surface again for more than a decade.
Meanwhile, in 1947, the U.S. State Department was so concerned about the influx of Nazi-looted art that it specifically warned U.S. galleries and museums to be especially vigilant of any art coming to the U.S. during or after the war from Nazi-controlled countries, including Austria.
In 1956, the artworks suddenly reappeared in Bern, Switzerland, and were sold by Eberhard Kornfeld, the owner of G&K, who died in April 2023. During the war, Hitler’s personal art curator, Hildebrand Gurlitt, was authorized to sell off degenerate artwork that had been seized by the Nazi government as part of Goebbels’s program. Then, in the decades after the war, Kornfeld established a close business relationship with Hildebrand Gurlitt’s son Cornelius, from whom Kornfeld received hundreds of Nazi-looted artworks stolen from Holocaust victims.
Kornfeld then sold most of Grünbaum’s Schieles to Otto Kallir, the owner of the NYC-based Galerie St. Etienne, with no provenance or ownership history. Kallir knew the artworks had belonged to Fritz Grünbaum before his death, however, because he had seen the drawings in the Grünbaums’ Vienna apartment in 1928 when Kallir borrowed them for an exhibition at his Neue Galerie in Vienna. After purchasing the drawings from Kornfeld, Kallir transported them into Manhattan and then sold them to private collectors and institutions, where they remained before they were seized by the Office in 2023.
Assistant District Attorney Matthew Bogdanos, Chief of the Antiquities Trafficking Unit and Senior Trial Counsel conducted the investigation along with Assistant District Attorney Edward Smith, Investigative Analyst Hilary Chassé, and Special Agent Megan Buckley.