Nazis Stole Two Paintings From a Jewish Cabaret Star. Now, His Heirs Are Selling Them

Proceeds from the auction will go toward supporting underrepresented artists

“Woman Hiding Her Face” by Egon Schiele
Woman Hiding Her Face (1912) by Egon Schiele Christie's

When Timothy Reif was a child, his grandmother called him “her little Fritz Grünbaum.” She was referring to Reif’s grandfather’s cousin, a Jewish Austrian performer who Nazis captured and sentenced to death in a concentration camp.

“I was six or seven, and all I knew was that it was said with a lot of love, and it was said with a lot of admiration,” Reif tells Smithsonian magazine. “And so it’s very strange now, these many years later, to really begin to understand what that really meant to her when she said it.” 

Part of that understanding has come from Reif’s attempts to recover art that the Nazis stole from Grünbaum, which he has been pursuing with fellow Grünbaum heirs since the 1990s.

Earlier this year, Reif and fellow heir David Frankel won a major victory in their fight for restitution: The New York Court of Appeals upheld an earlier ruling that returned two Egon Schiele drawings—Woman in a Black Pinafore (1911) and Woman Hiding Her Face (1912)—to the two heirs. The artworks had been held by a London-based art dealer, Richard Nagy.

Now, the family will sell both pieces at Christie’s, the auction house announced today. Woman in a Black Pinafore is valued between $500,000 and $800,000, while Woman Hiding Her Face is valued between $1.5 and $2 million. Frankel and Reif will use their portions of the proceeds to establish the Grünbaum Fischer Foundation, which will support underrepresented performing artists.

The foundation’s first awardee is a senior jazz pianist at Duke Ellington School of the Arts, a performing arts high school in Washington, D.C. The young pianist will perform at Christie’s on Tuesday night at an event celebrating the upcoming sales, which will take place on November 17.

According to Reif, Grünbaum was something of a philanthropist himself.

“Through all of his years, but particularly in the years of the Great Depression, Fritz would make what he called loans to stage hands, to musicians, to others who were not as fortunate. And it was very clear he didn’t expect repayment,” says Reif. “I hope that [the foundation] in some way lives up to Fritz’s legacy. It’s his legacy that we’re thinking of.”

“Woman in a Black Pinafore” (1911) by Egon Schiele.
Woman in a Black Pinafore (1911) by Egon Schiele Christie's

Born in 1880, Grünbaum was a well-known Austrian performer who built a career writing and performing cabarets, popular songs and operettas, as well as directing and acting in films. He was, as Reif puts it, a “Mel Brooks of his time.”

Grünbaum mocked the Nazis in his work. When they marched into Austria, they sent him back and forth between the Dachau and Buchenwald concentration camps. Even there, he was ever the performer, entertaining his fellow prisoners with sly, derisive humor. He died at Dachau in 1941.

In addition to being a performer, Grünbaum was an art lover. He had a large art collection in Austria, which included 81 works by Austrian expressionist Egon Schiele. Years later, when Grünbaum’s descendants began investigating, they concluded that the Nazis undoubtedly stole his works—many of which were in circulation around the world.

The courts have not always sided with the Grünbaum heirs. Two arbitration boards in Vienna ruled that there is no evidence to support the family’s allegations that Grünbaum's collection was ever stolen by Nazi authorities, as Hili Perlson reported for Artnet in 2017. In 2012, the family lost a seven-year legal battle over a different Schiele work, Seated Woman With a Bent Left Leg (Torso). In that case, a Second Circuit Court of Appeals in the United States ruled that the family had waited too long to claim the piece, and that the evidence wasn’t strong enough to support their claims.

Other legal experts have argued that the collection was resigned consensually. Why? In 1938, the Nazis forced an imprisoned Grünbaum to execute a power of attorney in favor of his wife, Elisabeth. Four days later, Elisabeth was forced to permit a Nazi official to inventory her husband’s belongings, including his art collection.

In 2019, a New York appellate court balked at the suggestion that those events proved Grünbaum parted with his collection willingly. “We reject the notion that a person who signs a power of attorney in a death camp can be said to have executed the document voluntarily,” the judges wrote.

The defense had also claimed that the collection may have belonged to Elisabeth’s sister, Mathilde, who sold them after the war. But the judges wrote that no significant evidence supported that theory.

The court’s decision was “informed by the intent and provisions” of the Holocaust Expropriated Recovery Act (HEAR), which Congress enacted in 2016. The act gives descendants of Holocaust victims six years to file a claim after they discover that the Nazis may have confiscated property from their ancestors. Prior to HEAR, statutes of limitations varied from state to state, and were sometimes half as long.

Reif hopes his 2019 win in court can be a model for future restitution cases. In their decision, the judges provided a thorough and detailed description of everything we know—and everything we don’t—about Grünbaum’s art collection. “If other courts within New York or beyond follow that careful evaluation of fact, and can conduct that kind of reasoning,” he says, “then there is hope that other instances can be met with the same results.”

He would like to see similar rigor applied to repatriation cases outside of Europe. In recent months, many such cases have been making headlines: The Metropolitan Museum of Art returned two stolen artifacts to Nepal over the summer. In September, the Netherlands returned pre-Hispanic pottery to Panama. Earlier this month, the National Gallery of Art and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art transferred ownership of 30 Benin bronzes to Nigeria.

Legally, the New York Court of Appeals’ decision is a major victory for Reif and his relatives. Emotionally, Reif says that the ruling—and the upcoming auctioning—is bittersweet.

“When we saw the works for the first time and just sat with them in that room, there was just a sense that he acquired them because he really liked looking at them, and all of that … was taken away,” says Reif. “So this is a little part of his dignity and his legacy that we can seek to reclaim in his name, and create something living that will continue to go on and on for an extraordinary human. At the same time, we shouldn’t have had to do this at all.”