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Artwork believed stolen during the Holocaust seized by authorities

Three artworks believed stolen from a Jewish art collector and entertainer during the Holocaust have been seized from museums.
Artwork believed stolen during the Holocaust seized by authorities
Posted at 8:15 PM, Sep 15, 2023

Three pieces of art worth millions will soon be in police custody after hanging on the walls of three museums for decades.  

The art by Austrian expressionist Egon Schiele was once owned by Fritz Grunbaum, a Jewish cabaret performer who was among some 31,000 people who died at the Dachau concentration camp in 1941.  Prosecutors say the works belong to his living heirs. They believe he was forced to sign away ownership under duress at Nazi-run Dachau near Munich.  

The Manhattan district attorney has issued warrants for the pieces, which his office says were bought and sold by Manhattan art dealers.  

They were seized Wednesday from the Art Institute of Chicago, the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh and the Allen Memorial Art Museum at Oberlin College in Ohio.  

The three museums issued statements, with both the Art Institute and Oberlin saying they were confident they legally acquired the works.  

This is just the latest case involving high-profile artwork believed stolen by Nazis during the holocaust. 

"It's unfathomable, the amount of loss that occurred in World War II," said E. Randol Schoenberg, a lawyer who worked on a similar case.  

Nazis looted at least 600,000 pieces of artwork from Jewish people in World War II, and possibly more like millions.  

SEE MORE: 98-year-old former Nazi camp guard charged as accessory to murder

"I remind people that in the scheme of things, as bad as the stealing of art was, it ranks very low ... among the crimes committed by the Nazis, right. So I think it's understandable ... that after the war, recovering paintings and putting them in the right spot was not the highest priority, right?" Schoenberg said.  

He says that nearly 80 years later, there’s unfinished business. 

Schoenberg would know. He represented Maria Altmann in her lawsuit to get back five Gustav Klimt paintings originally owned by her family, including a piece known as the "Woman in Gold." The story was turned into a Hollywood movie with Schoenberg played by Ryan Reynolds and Altmann played by Helen Mirren.  

The Grunbaum case gets more complicated, because Grunbaum’s sister-in-law had sold some of his collection after his death. But in 2018, a judge ruled there was no evidence he voluntarily gave her the pieces.   

The same judge ruled two other Schiele works had to be given back. That was a civil case, but Schoenberg thinks it could help the heirs going forward.  

"I get that people have ... some reason for holding on to these things, but there's nothing that makes it not a stolen painting as far as I'm concerned," he said.

Schoenberg also thinks this won’t be the last we hear about art looted by the Nazis.  

"You'll continue to have cases like this that are going on, there's still a Klimt painting that we did not yet recover from the Austrians. In the Austrian gallery, it's 100% a stolen painting. The woman in the painting was murdered," he said.

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