Seven drawings by Egon Schiele were returned to the heirs of Fritz Grünbaum, who died in a concentration camp
Seven drawings by Austrian Expressionist painter Egon Schiele were returned to the heirs of a Jewish cabaret performer who previously owned the works before he was killed by Nazis over 80 years ago.
The announcement was made by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg and Ivan J. Arvelo, Special Agent in Charge at Homeland Security Investigations, per a news release. A ceremony marking the official transfer of the works to the relatives of Fritz Grünbaum was held Wednesday at the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office in New York City.
According to Bragg's office, the drawings were "seized and voluntarily returned" by the Museum of Modern Art and Morgan Library & Museum in New York City, the Santa Barbara Museum of Art in California as well as the Ronald S. Lauder Collection and the Vally Sabarsky Trust.
The seven Schiele works were "Portrait of the Artist’s Wife, Edith," "Girl Putting on Shoe," "Standing Woman," "Seated Woman," "Self Portrait, "I Love Anthesis" and "Portrait of a Boy." The works range in value from $780,000 to $2.75 million.
Grünbaum was an Austrian cabaret artist who owned hundreds of works of art, including over 80 pieces by Schiele, according to the D.A.'s office. In 1938, he was apprehended by the Nazis following Germany's invasion of Austria. Prior to his death at the Dachau concentration camp in 1941, Grünbaum was forced to transfer power of attorney to his wife, Elisabeth, who was later coerced to hand over her husband's art collection to the Nazis.
The seven drawings ended up in Bern, Switzerland, in 1956, per the D.A.'s release, and were later purchased by a New York City gallery owner. The works were shipped to Manhattan, where they were eventually sold to institutions and collectors prior to being seized by authorities.
Grünbaum’s heirs have allegedly sought the return of the works for decades through the courts.
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"Frtiz Grünbaum was a man of incredible depth and spirit, and his memory lives on through the artworks that are finally being returned to his relatives," Bragg said in a statement. "I hope this moment can serve as a reminder that despite the horrific death and destruction caused by the Nazis, it is never too late to recover some of what we lost, honor the victims, and reflect on how their families are still impacted to this day."
He added, "We still have so much to learn from Fritz Grünbaum and these seven pieces that he found to be so beautiful. The Manhattan District Attorney’s Office is proud to have played a role in remembering his legacy."
Additionally, three other pieces by Schiele were seized by U.S. investigators from the Art Institute of Chicago, the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh and the Allen Memorial Art Museum in Ohio, CNN reported. The outlet added the works were part of a civil lawsuit filed by Grünbaum’s descendants and that search warrants were issued by New York state’s Supreme Court, which said there was "reasonable cause" that the pieces were stolen objects.
In response to the seizure of the Schiele artwork, a spokesperson for the Art Institute of Chicago tells PEOPLE, "We are confident in our legal acquisition and lawful possession of this work. The piece is the subject of civil litigation in federal court, where this dispute is being properly litigated and where we are also defending our legal ownership."
The spokesperson also says that the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office has moved to seize the work "in place" and it remains in the museum's custody at the moment.
In a statement to CNN, Oberlin College, which oversees the Allen Memorial Art Museum, said that its Schiele work was acquired legally. The institution added: "We believe that Oberlin is not the target of the Manhattan D.A.’s criminal investigation into this matter.” A spokesperson for the Carnegie Museums told the outlet: “We will of course cooperate fully with inquiries from the relevant authorities."
The Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh and the Allen Memorial Art Museum did not immediately respond to PEOPLE's requests for comment.
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