The heirs of a Jewish cabaret artist who died during the Holocaust are pursuing Austria through the courts to recover 12 paintings they say were looted by the Nazis.
Austria, however, is pushing back, with the Viennese museums that house the works arguing that they are their rightful owners, setting the stage for a protracted legal fight.
The plaintiffs’ complaint — filed in a US court — concerns 12 works by the Austrian Expressionist painter Egon Schiele.
They are currently in the collections of two prominent state-owned art museums in Vienna — the Leopold Museum, which has ten of them, and the Albertina, which has two.
The works include the 1911 painting Dead City III, Schiele’s representation of the Bohemian town of Ceský Krumlov, which was seized by the New York public prosecutor’s office in 1997 on suspicion that it had been stolen by the Nazis.
At the time, the painting was on loan to New York’s Museum of Modern Art. It was subsequently released and returned to the Leopold Museum. Dead City III once belonged to Fritz Grünbaum.
Born in 1880 into a Jewish family, during the interwar period he became a celebrated Viennese cabaret artist, writer and art collector. He was arrested by the Nazis in May 1938 and deported to Dachau, where he fell ill and died in January 1941.
Grünbaum’s heirs assert that, in July 1938, he was forced by the Nazis to sign away power of attorney to his wife, Elisabeth, so that his assets could be liquidated and handed over to the Nazi regime.
Mrs Grünbaum herself was deported to the Maly Trostenets extermination camp in occupied Belarus, where she was murdered four days after her arrival in October 1942.
What happened to Grünbaum’s sizeable art collection after 1938 was unknown to his heirs until 1997, when Dead City III showed up in New York.
It turned out that the painting — along with other works belonging to Grünbaum — had been sold at auction via the gallery Gutekunst & Klipstein in Berne, Switzerland in the 1950s.
On this basic timeline, the two sides are in agreement. Where Grünbaum’s heirs and the Viennese museums differ is on what exactly happened between 1938 and 1956, when the last Schiele was sold.
Vienna - the Grünbaum heirs say bringing the court action in the Austrian capital would be 'useless' (Photo: Victor Malyushev/Unsplash)
“No one doubts that those works were owned by the Grünbaum family,” a spokesperson for the Albertina told the JC.
But “it is also documented and verifiable that Elisabeth Grünbaum’s sister, Mathilde Lukacs, sold a total of 113 works from the Grünbaum collection between 1951 and 1956, including those that are now held by the Albertina.
“This means that the works were still in the possession of the Grünbaum family after 1945” and therefore were neither looted nor stolen.
“Despite extensive provenance research, no seizure of the works by Nazi authorities could be documented,” the spokesperson said.
Grünbaum’s heirs reject this. In their complaint, the family argues: “The ‘Mathilde Lukacs’ story has long been derided by Holocaust scholars as implausible because Lukacs was herself imprisoned in Belgium during the Second World War after escaping Vienna.”
Michael Pilz, the heirs’ lawyer in Vienna, outlined the Grünbaums’s basic legal argument to the JC: "Grünbaum once owned these 12 works, he handed power of attorney to his wife only under duress, and therefore that agreement is invalid as is anything that happened to the works thereafter."
“Very simply, the artworks were stolen from him,” Pilz said.
The Grünbaum heirs are bringing their case in New York, he said, because to sue Austria, the Leopold Museum, or the Albertina in an Austrian court would be “useless”.
The museums “would argue that, whatever we say, they bought these artworks from galleries or international art dealers, and according to Austrian law, this would mean that they are bona fide the possessors of the artworks”, Pilz explained.
The US has a more favourable legal and political environment regarding restitution. Earlier this month, seven works owned by various US museums and art collectors were returned to the Grünbaum family.
Representatives from the Leopold Museum and the Albertina have rejected requests to meet Grünbaum’s heirs regarding an out-of-court settlement.
The Albertina spokesman told the JC that since “no seizure can be ascertained, no contact was made in this case”.
There remain two unanswered questions that the US court must decide: does it have jurisdiction simply because the heirs live in New York and the museums do business there?
And can Austria exercise sovereign immunity? If his heirs can overcome these hurdles then, on the merits of the case, Pilz says, “we are very optimistic” the family can win and get the artworks back.