Judges affirm decision to return Nazi-looted drawings by Egon Schiele to heirs of Holocaust victim

Boodle Hatfield 17 July 2019

On Tuesday, the appeals court in New York upheld a 2018 ruling that returned two Nazi-looted drawings to the heirs of a Holocaust victim. This decision ends a years-long dispute between London art dealer, Richard Nagy, and the descendants of Fritz Grünbaum.

Raymond Dowd, a lawyer for the heirs, said “they are thrilled that the memory of Fritz Grünbaum is being properly honoured.”

The two prized drawings by the major figurative painter Egon Schiele (1890-1918) are worth an estimated $7 million (£5.6 million). Barring further appeals, they will be sold by Christie’s at auction in November.

Woman in a Black Pinafore (1911) and Woman Hiding her Face (1912) had once belonged to Grünbaum, who was a popular cabaret performer in Vienna. Throughout his life, he amassed an impressive 499-piece art collection, which included 81 Schiele drawings.

During World War II, Grünbaum’s art collection was confiscated and dispersed. He then hid with his wife in Vienna for a few years, but Grünbaum was betrayed. In 1941, he died in the Dachau concentration camp after performing one last time on New Year’s Eve for his fellow-sufferers.

The tragic consequences of the Nazi occupation of Europe on the lives, liberty and property of the Jews continue to confront us today,” commented the judges in their recent ruling.

Six years ago, Nagy bought the two drawings and displayed them at the fourth edition of the Salon of Art + Design fair at the Park Avenue Armory. Grünbaum’s heirs, Timothy Reif and David Frankel, managed to track down the drawings to Nagy and blocked him from selling or transferring the works.

The London-based art dealer contested this, arguing the drawings were passed to Grünbaum’s sister-in-law, Mathilde Lukacs, when he was detained. Nagy insisted that Lukacs had lawfully sold them to a Swiss dealer following the war, producing signed documents as proof.

Despite the documents, in 2018 the court dismissed Nagy’s argument and the decision was unanimously upheld this week. “We reject the notion that a person who signs a power of attorney in a death camp can be said to have executed the document voluntarily,” Judge Ramos wrote. “Moreover, even if Mathilde had possession of Grünbaum’s art collection, possession is not equivalent to legal title.”

The Holocaust Expropriated Recovery Act (HEAR) played a crucial role in the resolution of this case. Enacted in 2016, HEAR is a federal law that eased statute-of-limitations restrictions for the recovery of artworks stolen during World War II.

Although the Appellate Division judges did not accuse Nagy of any wrongdoing, the holes in his provenance history research were highlighted.

Few restitution cases end in a final judgment. This is often due to statutes of limitation, jurisdictional limitations, and the application of law more favourable to current possessors. Tuesday’s ruling, therefore, hails a monumental victory for Grünbaum’s heirs and other descendants seeking the return of Nazi-looted artworks.
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