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October 6, 2023 10:40 am

Christie’s to Auction Artworks Stolen by Nazis, Returned to Heirs of Jewish Holocaust Victim


avatar by Shiryn Ghermezian

“Stehende Frau (Dirne)” by Egon Schiele is one of the artworks being auctioned by Christie’s in November. Photo: Christie’s Images Limited 2023.

Six portraits by Austrian Expressionist artist Egon Schiele that were stolen by the Nazis and recently returned to the heirs of an Austrian-Jewish cabaret performer who owned them before he was murdered in the Holocaust will be auctioned by Christie’s in New York next month.

The auction house made the announcement on Thursday regarding the pieces that were returned last month to the family of Fritz Grünbaum, who was also a writer, director, comedian, and film and radio star.

Three watercolors will go up for auction on Nov. 9 as part of Christie’s 20th Century Evening Sale and are estimated to sell for between $1 million and $2.5 million. The artworks are Standing Woman (Prostitute) from 1912, Self-Portrait (1910), and I Love Antithesis (1912), which is the most expensive piece listed and was in the private art collection of World Jewish Congress President Ronald S. Lauder before it was returned to Grünbaum’s heirs.

Two additional watercolors and a pencil on paper drawing will be included in the Impressionist and Modern Works on Paper Sale on Nov. 11: Portrait of a Boy (1910), Portrait of Edith Schiele (1915), and Seated Woman (1910). The three artworks have an estimated value that range from $150,000 to $900,000.

Proceeds from the auction will help fund the Grünbaum Fischer Foundation and establish a scholarship program for young musicians in Grünbaum’s honor.

“The return of the Grünbaum Schieles is a landmark moment in the history of restitution and a step forward in educating the world of the actual events of the Nazi occupation of Europe,” said Marc Porter, chairman of Christie’s Americas. “The fiction that human beings threatened with their lives parted with their possessions with free will has been put to rest. Forced sales or those under duress are thefts — no less than lootings or seizures. I believe the next chapter is the further exploration of the history of aryanization and economic crimes as we continue to learn more about the objects we sell and the people who owned them.”

The artworks by Schiele — whose mentor was famed Austrian artist Gustav Klimt — were part of a vast art collection owned by Grünbaum, who was arrested by the Nazis in 1938 and sent to the Dachau concentration camp in Germany. The Nazis forced him to give his wife power of attorney, and she was later coerced to give Nazi officials her husband’s entire art collection, much of which was sold to finance the Nazi Party. Grünbaum died in Dachau in January 1941, and his wife was killed a year later in a Nazi death camp.

The office of Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg in New York announced in mid-September that institutions in and out of the state, as well as two art collectors, voluntarily turned over a total of seven works by Schiele to Grunbaum’s family once prosecutors told them the items were stolen by the Nazis. The artwork has been valued at between $780,000 and $2.75 million each.

The seventh work — Girl Putting on Shoe (1910), which was returned by New York City’s Museum of Modern Art — will not be auctioned by Christie’s. Raymond Dowd, an attorney for Grünbaum’s heirs, said it has instead been acquired privately by “a prominent collector who has a demonstrated record of supporting Holocaust survivors,” according to Artnews.

Christie’s noted in a statement last week that it would expand its provenance research for objects from the Holocaust era and better examine the original sources of wealth used to acquire those items to ensure they were not looted by Nazis. The statement came after the auction house faced criticism over the summer for auctioning jewelry owned by an Austrian art collector who acquired his wealth by buying Jewish companies sold under duress in Nazi Germany.

Last week, three more Schiele artworks were seized by the Manhattan district attorney’s office and returned to Grünbaum’s family after warrants were issued for them, Artnews reported. Those items included the pencil-on-paper drawing Portrait of a Man (1917) from the Carnegie Museum of Art; the watercolor-and-pencil on paper work Girl With Black Hair (1911) from Oberlin’s Allen Memorial Art Museum; and the watercolor-and-pencil drawing on paper Russian War Prisoner (1916) from the Art Institute of Chicago.

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