New York court has ordered to the London art dealer Richard Nagy to return two watercolours by Egon Schiele to the heirs of an Austrian-Jewish Holocaust victim, whose collection was allegedly looted by the Nazis during the Second World War.

Namely, the 2 works in question, Woman in a Black Pinafore (1911) and Woman Hiding Her Face (1912), together valued  around $5m, had previously been in the collection of the cabaret artist Fritz Grünbaum (1990-1941), who was arrested by the Nazis in 1938 and sent to Dachau concentration camp, where he died in 1941. After his arrest his wife, Elisabeth was forced to sign over his art collection (consisting of over 500 works, including at least 81 by Schiele) to be inventoried after she was forced from their apartment, before be interned herself  in a camp.

However, Nagy, a famous london artdealer and specialist in German Expressionist art, said he bought the works legally and argued that they had passed hands legitimately in the years since they were sold at a Swiss auction in 1956, when they were consigned by Elisabeth’s sisterNagy has been in business since 1980; for decades, he has worked to bring Schiele to a wider audience. With this recent case, he contends that Grünbaum’s sister-in-law, art collector Matilda Lukacs, sold the paintings in 1956, and that two arbitration boards in Vienna have ruled against the family’s heirs in the past “stating that there was no evidence of Nazi looting.”

Despite these facts, in this ruling against Nagy Justice Charles E. Ramos  rejected Nagy’s defence that the two works could not be seized under the Holocaust Expropriated Art Recovery Act (HEAR, stating that the way in which the paintings had initially been seized undermined this. “A signature at gunpoint cannot lead to a valid conveyance” .The case against Nagy was bought by Grünbaum’s heirs, Timothy Reif, David Fraenkel and Milos Vavra,after the two paintings were seized at the Salon of Art + Design fair at the Park Avenue Armory in November 2015.

“Although defendants argue that the HEAR Act is inapplicable, this argument is absurd, as the act is intended to apply to cases precisely like this one, where Nazi-looted art is at issue” said Ramos in his judgement.

Following yesterday’s ruling, the Grünbaum heirs’ attorney, Raymond Dowd from Dunnington Bartholow & Miller, said that the ruling was a victory for Holocaust victims and their families, and the “decision brought us a step closer to recovering all of the culture that was stolen during the largest mass-theft in history.

Egon Schiele
Seated Woman with Bent Left Leg (Torso)
(1917) Gouache and black crayon on paper
(estimate: $1.2–1.8 million) Photo: Courtesy Sotheby’s.

In a statement to The Art Newspaper, a spokeswoman from the Richard Nagy gallery said in his defence: “Richard Nagy’s acquisition and ownership of these Schiele artworks has always been transparent and well-documented. These artworks come from well-regarded collections and have been repeatedly publicly shown. The tragic story of Fritz Grünbaum is well known and properly acknowledged. As an art dealer with a long record of working with German Expressionist artworks, and someone whose own family had to flee persecution, Richard is particularly sensitive to restitution claims and continues to believe that all such claims call for close and merit-based review.” – Knowing this, we turned to recognised Holocaust provenance experts Sophie Lillie, Laurie Stein, and Lynn Nicholas to vet and issue independent reports on the modern day claims. Had any one of them found that the Schiele artworks were owned by Fritz Grünbaum and stolen by the Nazis, Richard would not have hesitated to restitute them. Since not one of them did, it is surprising that Justice Ramos ignored not only their reports, but also the decisions of the US federal court and two independent Austrian panels that previously found that this collection of artworks was not stolen by the Nazis. We trust that upon appeal the complete record, including the expert reports, will be given a full and fair review.

That case eventually also raised the question of whether the work was ever looted by the Nazis: the whereabouts of the Grünbaum collection is unknown between 1942 and 1956, when around 50 works resurfaced in a sale at Eberhard Kornfeld, a Swiss auction house, consigned by Elisabeth’s sister, Matilda Lukacs. There still be a debate among experts as to whether the works were seized by the Nazis or hidden during the war.

In his court defence, Nagy also cited the 2005 suit brought by David Bakalar, a Massachusetts industrialist turned sculptor, against Vavra and Leon Fischer (another Grünbaum heir) in which Bakalar argued he was the rightful owner of the Schiele work bought in 1963:  “It’s the same case, being brought by these heirs and their counsel over the exact same collection of works of art, as has been lost by them in two adjudications in Austria and the Federal Court of New York decision after full hearings on the merits” Nagy said. “That decision stated that there was no evidence of Nazi looting of the works sold by Matilda Lukacs [Fritz Grünbaum’s sister-in-law] in 1956. By the claimants’ own admission, these two works were in the 1956 sale… it is not a case of Nazi theft.”

In this case, after a seven-year legal battle, in 2012 the Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Bakalar’s favour on the grounds that the Grünbaum heirs had not acted soon enough to assert their right to title. So, let’s see if also Nagy will get the upper hand on the case.

Source: The Art Newspaper

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