Egon Schiele, Woman Hiding Her Face, 1912.

US Court Allows Lawsuit Over Nazi-Looted Egon Schiele Drawings to Go Forward, Following New Legislation

The heirs of Fritz Grunbaum, an Austrian Jewish entertainer, have repeatedly tried to sue for the return of two valuable drawings by Egon Schiele, which were part of a large collection that the Nazis confiscated from Grunbaum’s Vienna apartment in 1938, but have been unsuccessful due to “legal technicalities.”

Timothy Reif, David Fraenkel, and Milos Vavra, who have argued for years that the collection, which included eighty-one Schieles, was stolen by the Nazis, filed another lawsuit after Congress passed the Holocaust Expropriated Art Recovery Act in December, which may change the outcome of their case, William D. Cohan of the New York Times reports.

Sponsored by Republican senator Ted Cruz, who said that the law would ensure that “claims to Nazi-confiscated art are not unfairly barred by statutes of limitations and other similar time-based nonmerits defenses,” the Holocaust Expropriated Art Recovery Act changes the statue of limitations for ownership claims to six years from the time of “actual discovery” of the stolen works.

This new guideline aligns with two international proclamations stating that technicalities should not be employed to prevent stolen property from being returned to its rightful owners. The new legislation has also been cited by lawyers for the estate of Alice Leffmann, which is currently seeking the restitution of a valuable Picasso painting from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Raymond Dowd, a lawyer for Grunbaum’s heirs, filed a previous suit in November 2015 after learning that Richard Nagy, a London art dealer and Schiele specialist, was attempting to sell Woman in a Black Pinafore, 1911, and Woman Hiding Her Face, 1912, at an art fair at the Park Avenue Armory. According to Dowd, the two drawings are valued together at roughly $5 million. Nagy fought the claim, stating in court papers that he acquired both artworks “in good faith and in a commercially reasonable manner.”

Nagy’s lawyers argued that previous court rulings concerning Schieles from the Grunbaum collection stated that they had been properly conveyed in 1956 and therefore no future legal claims should be considered on these works.

Judge Charles Ramos of the New York State Supreme Court ordered that the two drawings be held by Nagy’s shipping agent while the resolution of the legal case was pending. Nagy and his lawyer, Thaddeus Stauber, have appealed.

Some collectors, dealers, and museums have sided with Nagy, claiming that the art was inventoried by the Nazis but not stolen, and that Grunbaum’s sister-in-law sold fifty-three of the Schiele pieces in a legitimate transaction—which included the two drawings addressed in the heirs’ present suit—to a Swiss art dealer in 1956.

Grunbaum’s heirs maintain that the previous claims, in this case and others, were settled on legal technicalities rather than based on the merits of the argument that the art was looted by the Nazis, and they hope that this new law will allow their concerns to be addressed.

Dowd and Vavra have also pursued the restitution of another Schiele drawing from the Grunbaum collection, Seated Woman with Bent Left Leg (Torso), 1917. For this 2005 suit, the court ruled in favor of a Boston businessman, David Bakalar, who had bought the work in 1963. It said too much time had passed since the Grunbaum heirs made their claim, causing evidence to be lost. Dowd appealed that ruling but ultimately lost.

Agnes Peresztegi, the president and legal counsel of the Commission on Art Recovery—an organization founded by the art collector Ronald S. Lauder to encourage the restitution of artworks stolen during World War II—said that as a legal precedent the case with Bakalar was not decided on merit but on the technical issue that too much time had passed to pursue a claim and that she would welcome the use of the new law in deciding whether many of the Grunbaum collection’s Schieles, including the two owned by Nagy, were stolen.