Hidden away in the cool, dim chambers of the Art Institute of Chicago resides a piece of art history—a 1916 watercolor and pencil drawing titled Russian War Prisoner, crafted by Austrian expressionist Egon Schiele. While it may not rank among the world’s most renowned or valuable artworks, it is certainly one of the most legally enthralling. As they say, possession is nine-tenths of the law. Yet in this case, despite the sanctuary in which it resides, it’s not entirely obvious who, exactly, owns Russian War Prisoner.
Until recently, one could confidently say that the Art Institute had dominion over the portrait. But as my partner Bill Cohan first reported in September, Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg has been on a mission to return many Schiele artworks to the family of Fritz Grünbaum, the famous Jewish Viennese cabaret performer who perished in a Nazi concentration camp. Bragg’s efforts have resulted in several museums parting with their Schieles—the Museum of Modern Art and the Morgan Library, for instance, complied with relatively little resistance, while others, including the Carnegie Museum of Art and the Allen Memorial Art Museum, acquiesced when confronted with seizure warrants. The Art Institute, however, has taken a different stance: Russian War Prisoner, quite ironically, has become veritably imprisoned, removed from public display and tucked away in a temperature- and light-controlled backroom.
It’s now considered seized “in place,” languishing in a kind of legal limbo as a momentous court battle unfolds. The Grünbaum heirs—namely Timothy Reif, David Fraenkel, and Milos Vavra—are suing the Art Institute for ownership. In response, the Chicago museum adamantly claims to be the true owner. And now Bragg, himself, is on the brink of being pulled into the case: the Art Institute argues the D.A. is an indispensable party because his office now technically possesses Russian War Prisoner, despite the fact that the artwork remains physically on museum premises.