Heirs of Holocaust Victim Invoke New Law in Suit Over Two Schiele Drawings

The family of Fritz Grunbaum claims the works were stolen by Nazis

Egon Schiele’s “Woman Hiding Her Face” (1912) Public Domain

Fritz Grunbaum, a Jewish cabaret singer from Austria, was captured by Nazi authorities in 1938 and sent to his death at the Dachau concentration camp. His extensive art collection was inventoried by the Nazis soon after, but the whereabouts of the trove during WWII remains unknown.

Among the collection, which consisted of 449 works, were two colorful drawings by Austrian artist Egon Schiele: Woman in a Black Pinafore (1911) and Woman Hiding Her Face (1912). Now, Grunbaum’s relatives have invoked a new law that seeks to help the descendants of Holocaust victims recover stolen art in an effort to reclaim these works, William D. Cohan reports for the New York Times.

The move is a controversial one. Two arbitration boards in Vienna have previously ruled that there is no evidence to support the family’s allegations that Grunbaum's collection was ever stolen by Nazi authorities, Hili Perlson reports at artnetNews

But the descendants are hoping the HEAR Act will give their claims new life. The act, which was passed by Congress in December 2016, stipulates that families of Holocaust victims have six years from the time they discover stolen works to file claims, Erin Blakemore reports for Smithsonian.com. Before that, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency explains, the statue of limitations had varied from state to state, and was sometimes as short as three years. 

Gruanbaum's heirs say they have previously been thwarted by the kind of "legal technicalities" that the HEAR Act seeks to correct. In 2012, the family lost a seven-year legal battle to reclaim another Schiele drawing, Seated Woman With a Bent Left Leg (Torso) (1917). As Nicholas O'Donnell explains in the Art Law Report, a Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the family had waited too long to claim the piece. 

In 2015, three of Grunbaum’s descendants—Timothy Reif, David Fraenkel and Milos Vavra—filed a lawsuit after learning that London art dealer Richard Nagy was trying to sell Woman in a Black Pinafore and Woman Hiding Her Face at an art fair in New York. According to Cohan, Nagy claimed in court papers that he obtained the drawings “in good faith and in a commercially reasonable manner.” That case was still in litigation when Grunbaum’s family invoked the HEAR Act, in effort to bolster their claim to the works.

The legal kerfuffle over the Schiele drawings is sure to be compounded by the murky fate of Grunbaum’s collection. As Perlson explains, collectors, dealers and some museums have contended that while the Nazis inventoried Grunbaum’s paintings, they did not seize them. These experts also say that Grunbaum’s sister-in-law willingly sold 53 works—including the two Schieles—to a Swiss art dealer in 1956. According to David D’Arcy of the Art Newspaper, some even argue that Grunbaum’s sister-in-law was a collector in her own right, and that the Schieles may have belonged to her from the get go.

Raymond Dowd, a lawyer for the Grunbaum heirs, told Cohan that “the circumstances of that transaction have never been fully explored.”

A New York court now faces the delicate task of determining whether Fritz Grunbaum was, in fact, a victim of Nazi looting—and whether his descendants are entitled to protections afforded by the newly minted HEAR Act.

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