It has been a momentous month for the world of high-dollar artworks, the billionaires who trade in them, and the powerful and wealthy art institutions who are sometimes complicit in their wrongful acquisition. Two weeks ago, I broke the news that Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg had obtained search warrants allowing for the seizure of three artworks by the late Austrian artist, Egon Schiele, which had originally been stolen from their murdered owners by the Nazis during World War II: Girl with Black Hair, which had been on display at the Allen Memorial Art Museum, at Oberlin College; Russian War Prisoner, at the Art Institute of Chicago; and Portrait of a Man, at the Carnegie Museum of Art, in Pittsburgh.
At the time, both the Carnegie Museum and the Art Institute provided me with statements claiming their ownership of the artworks was legitimate and lawful, and that of course they would cooperate with the authorities. (A spokesperson at the Art Institute noted that their Schiele is also the subject of civil litigation in federal court.) The Allen Museum did not respond to a request for comment.
As I wrote on September 13, however, Bragg’s seizure of the three artworks was part of a much larger story about the restitution of the estate of Fritz Grünbaum, the famous Jewish Viennese cabaret performer who was later murdered in a Nazi concentration camp in 1941. For more than a decade after the war, Grünbaum’s collection of Schieles had disappeared, only to reemerge in Switzerland, where they were auctioned off to an art dealer/collector and subsequently traded around the world, their original provenance masked.