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German Foundation Criticized for Removing Works from Nazi-Looted Art Database

The German Lost Art Foundation, founded by the German federal government in 2015 in an effort to assist in the restoration of Nazi-looted artworks after World War II, is facing backlash for removing sixty-three works by the Austrian Expressionist Egon Schiele from its Lost Art Database after dealers challenged the provenance of the pieces.

On one side of the controversy are the heirs of Fritz Grünbaum, a Viennese cabaret performer whose art collection containing over four hundred works—including eighty-one by Schiele—was inventoried by the Nazis in 1938. The descendants maintain that the Schieles were Grünbaum’s property and that the Nazis confiscated them in 1938 before sending him to the Dachau concentration camp, where he died in 1941.

More than a decade ago, the heirs contacted the foundation in order to list the works. The foundation reviewed the information collected by members of the Grünbaum family—it does not conduct its own provenance research—and ultimately decided to include the pieces in its database of more than 170,000 stolen artworks.

The dispute over the works began in 1956, after the sixty-three Schiele pieces reemerged on the market when the Swiss dealer Eberhard Kornfeld attempted to sell them. He alleged that he had come into possession of the collection legally after Grünbaum’s sister-in-law Mathilde Lukacs-Herzl sold fifty-four of the works to his gallery.

The heirs believe Kornfeld’s account is fabricated. They found it suspicious that Kornfeld waited until 1998, forty-two years after he revealed that he had the works, to divulge that he had purchased the collection from Lukacs-Herzl, by which point she had been dead for over two decades. They also questioned the dealer’s sales records, which featured Lukacs-Herzl’s signature. Her name was written in pencil and was also misspelled.

Several cases involving the Schiele works have since been brought to court. In 2011, a Manhattan federal court ruled that Kornfeld’s account was credible and declared that one dealer’s Schiele work was acquired legally. However, earlier this year, New York State Supreme Court Judge Charles J. Ramos sided with the descendants and ordered the London-based dealer, Richard Nagy, to return two Schiele drawings—Women in a Black Pinafore and Woman Hiding Her Face—which he bought in 2013, to the Grünbaum family. Nagy plans to appeal the decision.

In a surprising move, the German Lost Art Foundation sided with Nagy and his lawyers, who contend that Grünbaum’s wife, Elisabeth Grünbaum-Herzl, exported most of the art collection to relatives in Belgium before being sent to a concentration camp, where she died. The controversial decision has drawn attention to how the foundation processes requests to list and remove works. The free online database is supposed to comply with the Washington Principles, a set of tenets that emerged in 1998 to assist in resolving ownership disputes related to Nazi-looted art.

In response to the criticism of the foundation, spokesperson Freya Paschen said that it acknowledges that Grünbaum was persecuted by the Nazis, but that this does not mean the entirety of Grünbaum’s art collection was sold under duress or was confiscated. She added, “Should there be new historic facts brought to light that may change the current evaluation, the works would be publicized again.”