Heirs of a collector persecuted during the Nazi regime are seeking to recover works by Egon Schiele from the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Santa Barbara Museum of Art in California.
Timothy Reif and David Fraenkel, relatives of the Austrian Jewish collector Fritz Grünbaum, who was killed in 1941 at Dachau concentration camp, have filed lawsuits against the New York and California museums over a 1912 painting and 1915 pencil drawing, both portraits of women, respectively.
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The suits, filed last week, allege that Grünbaum was forced to liquid his assets during his internment at Dachau. According to the filing against MoMA, Jewish Property Declaration documents show evidence that eighty-one artworks from Grünbaum’s collection had passed through Nazi ownership.
The 1912 painting Prostitute was registered in a 1956 Swiss auction house catalogue, according to the MOMA filing. However, the museum has no record for acquisition dates after that 1956 sale, the suit claims, accusing the museum of failing to carry out ‘appropriate diligence” before acquiring the work.
The second suit, which targets the Santa Barbara museum, claims that Schiele’s 1915 drawing Portrait of the Artist’s Wife was held by a New York dealer between the mid-1950s to 1960s, before being illegally transferred to another location.
A spokesperson for the museum told the Daily Beast, which first reported the news, that the museum was not unaware of the drawing’s historical record before it was acquired as a gift from a private donor.
The heirs have taken legal action against four other museums seeking to reclaim legal title of artworks from Grünbaum. In 2019, two works by Schiele were returned to Reif and Fraenkel from the London dealer Richard Nagy after a New York judge ruled in favor of the heirs. The two works, Woman in a Black Pinafore (1911) and Woman Hiding Her Face (1912) sold at Christie’s in November of 2022 for prices around $500,000 and $2.6 million, respectively.