At Large  February 25, 2024  Rebecca Schiffman

Manhattan DA Seeks Return of Schiele Work from Art Institute of Chicago

Art Institute of Chicago

Egon Schiele, Russian War Prisoner, 1916 (Detail)

A drawing by Austrian Expressionist Egon Schiele is currently the subject of a battle between the Manhattan District Attorney’s office and the Art Institute of Chicago, where it currently lives. The DA’s office filed a motion on February 23, saying the museum disregarded evidence that the artwork in question, Russian War Prisoner, was looted by Nazis.

The work is just one of many works by Schiele that belonged to the Austrian cabaret artist and art collector, Fritz Grünbaum, whose collection was stolen by the Nazis in 1938 before he was murdered in 1941 in the Dachau concentration camp. 

For the past few years, Grünbaum’s heirs have been working to recover over eighty works from his collection that ended up on the market and into the collection of major museums. In 2018, a New York civil court ruled that Grünbaum had never sold or surrendered his works and they were stolen, making any descendant of Grünbaum the rightful owner.

Art Institute of Chicago

Egon Schiele, Russian War Prisoner, 1916

This past September, Manhattan D.A. Alvin L. Bragg worked with the family to get restitution for seven works that were sold by a Manhattan dealer to prominent museums. Because the works were sold in New York, the D.A. was given jurisdiction and was able to approach the museums and collectors who acquired the works, and explained that these works were stolen property. All seven collections gave their works without any further legal action. 

This time around, the Manhattan D.A. is seeking the return of the drawing, which was purchased by the Art Institute of Chicago in 1966. According to the New York Times, who gained access to the court papers filed by the D.A.’s office on February 23, the institute paid about $5,500 for the work and its current value is estimated to exceed $1.25 million. 

The New York prosecutors will seek to prove that this drawing came to the Institute by way of dealer Eberhard Kornfeld, who was known to doctor documents, according to Matthew Bogdanos, Assistant District Attorney in Manhattan, and chief of the DA's Antiquities Trafficking Unit.

The Art Institute, in a statement to the Times said that they “had good title to the work” and “would fight the district attorney’s attempt to seize it.” The statement continued, “We have done extensive research on the provenance history of this work and are confident in our lawful ownership of the piece.” Their firm stance is unprecedented in the restitution cases related to Grünbaum, with every other collector and institution returning their work without question including the Museum of Modern Art, the Morgan Library & Museum, the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, collector Ronald S. Lauder, and the estate of Serge Sabarsky.

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