Lauder, gallery drawn into suit over art said to be looted by Nazis

Palm Beach Daily News 9 October 2005

By Jan Sjostrom


Cosmetics magnate, art collector and part-time Palm Beacher Ronald Lauder is connected with a legal battle involving alleged Nazi loot.


Lauder and the Neue Galerie, the New York museum he co-founded with Serge Sabarsky, have been subpoenaed in a case in which two descendents of Holocaust victim Fritz Grunbaum are seeking to recover 449 artworks they claim were stolen by the Nazis.


According to the heirs' attorney, Ray Dowd, some of the artworks may be included in an exhibition of 150 paintings and drawings by Austrian expressionist Egon Schiele opening Oct. 21 at the Neue Galerie. The artworks come from Lauder's and the late Sabarsky's collection


In 1998, Lauder was associated with a much-publicized case in which Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau confiscated two Schiele artworks on loan from an Austrian foundation to the Museum of Modern Art in New York, of which Lauder was then board chairman. One of the works once belonged to Grunbaum. It was returned to the Austrian foundation.


The Neue Galerie has issued a statement saying that "the catalogue for this exhibition contains a painstakingly researched checklist, which traces the provenance of every work in the exhibition," and inviting "all interested parties to examine the facts at hand."


Howard Spiegler, the attorney representing the museum, said, the Neue Galerie "will of course be cooperative and comply with the subpoena."


Lauder, who founded the Commission for Art Recovery of the World Jewish Congress, has repeatedly stated that Nazi-looted art should be returned to its rightful owners. The museum has yet to post on its Web site provenances of European art in its collection that changed hands in continental Europe between 1933 and 1945, in accordance with a commitment the American Association of Museums made in 2001 to the Presidential Advisory Commission on Holocaust Assets. According to the Web site, the museum is in the process of compiling the information.


Dowd said stolen Grunbaum artworks may be in the collections of the Morgan Library in New York, the Allen Memorial Art Museum at Oberlin College in Ohio, the Arkansas Arts Center in Little Rock, Harvard University's Fogg Art Museum in Cambridge, Mass., the Santa Barbara Museum of Art in California and the Neue Galerie.


Dowd suspects that at least four Schieles in Lauder's or Sabarsky's collections could have been Grunbaum's. But, he said, "we're not sure. We haven't been able to get a catalog yet." A spokesman for the museum said the catalogs would be available when the Schiele show opens.


The court case, filed in March in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, centers on the clouded history of Grunbaum's collection between 1938, when the Jewish cabaret singer was imprisoned in a concentration camp — where he died in 1941 — and 1952, when his sister-in-law Mathilde Lukacs-Herzl turned up at a Swiss gallery wanting to sell some of the art.


Between 1952 and 1956, Lukacs-Herzl sold 110 works, now reportedly worth more than $100 million, from Grunbaum's collection to the Swiss dealer, including the Schiele drawing that triggered the lawsuit.


When Massachusetts collector David Bakalar tried to sell the drawing in March at a Sotheby's auction in London, an attorney representing the alleged heirs, Leon Fischer and Milos Vavra, informed Sotheby's that the work's ownership was disputed. Bakalar withdrew the drawing and sued Fischer and Vavra for spoiling the sale. They countersued, and now Dowd is attempting to expand the lawsuit to include all suspected holders of the 449 Grunbaum artworks inventoried by the Nazis in 1938.

Included in the inventory were 78 Schieles; etchings by Rembrandt, Lucas van Leyden and Durer; engravings by Tiepolo, Callot and Delacroix; and drawings by Courbet, Rodin and Degas.


Dowd is pursuing the Schieles first, because their trail is easier to track. "We want all those things back," he said.


At issue is whether Lukacs-Herzl, who died in 1979, acquired Grunbaum's art legally.

Bakalar's suit alleges that Grunbaum's art never fell into Nazi hands, and that even if it did, Lukacs-Herzl's claim was legal.


The suit offers two possible scenarios for what happened to the art. Grunbaum's wife, who also died in the Holocaust, could have hidden at least some of it and given it to Lukacs-Herzl, who continued to keep it under wraps. Or an Austrian book seller could have bought the art and later returned it to Lukacs-Herzl. 


Fischer's and Vavra's countersuit alleges that the Nazis seized Grunbaum's collection and that any subsequent transaction in which Lukacs-Herzl acquired the art was illegal.


Lauder's spokesman Nelson Warfield said, "While Mr. Lauder is unaware of any provenance problem in his collection, he plans to fully cooperate with the inquiry. Of course, since it appears this case is essentially a dispute over what now-departed members of the Grunbaum family did in the 1950s, Mr. Lauder really can't shed any light on the central part of the case."
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