The question of who rightfully owns a million-dollar piece of artwork housed in Pittsburgh for decades has ignited dialogue about Jewish possessions that were looted by Nazis during the Holocaust.
In September, the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office trekked to the Carnegie Museum of Art in Oakland to seize “Portrait of a Man,” a 1917 drawing by the famed Austrian artist Egon Schiele.
The museum claimed it received the work legitimately through a donor in 1960. Manhattan District Attorney Alvin L. Bragg, Jr. said it was one of several pieces of art belonging to the family of Fritz Grünbaum, an Austrian Jewish cabaret performer whose collection was stolen by the Nazi regime.
“Fritz Grünbaum was a man of incredible depth and spirit, and his memory lives on through the artworks that are finally being returned to his relatives,” Bragg said. “I hope this moment can serve as a reminder that despite the horrific death and destruction caused by the Nazis, it is never too late to recover some of what we lost, honor the victims, and reflect on how their families are still impacted to this day.”
Brag announced on Sept. 20 the return of at least seven pieces of art, all by Schiele, to Grünbaum’s family. They were surrendered by collectors and museums from New York City’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) to the Santa Barbara Museum of Art in California.
In a statement, Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh said it “is deeply committed to our mission of preserving the resources of art and science by acting in accordance with ethical, legal, and professional requirements and norms.”
“We will of course cooperate fully with inquiries from the relevant authorities,” the statement said.
Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh did not respond to numerous inquiries from the Chronicle seeking additional comment.
Adam Hertzman, a spokesman for the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, said discussion about property the Nazis stole from Jews and others during World War II has gone on for decades.
“The Nazis looted valuables of all kinds from people they exterminated — Jews and others — from art to furniture to houses to cash and valuables,” Hertzman said.
It isn’t typical for descendants of those killed in genocides to have valuables and property returned to them, Hertzman said. But the Nazis documented their looting, leaving a paper trail for investigators to follow.
“To the Carnegie Museums’ immense credit, they talked about meeting the moral and ethical standards of their profession,” he added. “It’s great to see there is recognition of that history.”
Timothy Reif, a relative of Grunbaum’s, said Bragg and his team “have succeeded in solving crimes perpetrated over 80 years ago.”
“Their righteous and courageous collaboration in the pursuit of justice — unique among prosecutors and law enforcement in this entire nation, if not the world — shine a bright light for all to follow,” Reif said.
“Their names, along with Fritz Grünbaum’s, will be forever inscribed in the book of history,” he added.
Other pieces returned to Grunbaum’s family include:
• “I Love Antithesis,” from the Ronald Lauder Collection, valued at $2.75 million
• “Standing Woman” from MoMA, valued at $1.5 million
• “Girl Putting on Shoe” from MoMA, valued at $1 million
• “Self Portrait,” from the Morgan Library, valued at $1 million
• “Portrait of the Artist’s Wife, Edith,” SBMA, valued at $1 million
• “Portrait of a Boy,” the Vally Sabarsky Trust, valued at $780,000
• “Seated Woman,” the Vally Sabarsky Trust, valued at $1.5 million
Bragg’s office said Grünbaum owned hundreds of pieces of art, including more than 80 Schiele drawings.
Grunbaum was captured by the Nazis in 1938 after they invaded Austria and was forced to execute a power of attorney while imprisoned in the Dachau concentration camp. His wife, Elisabeth Grünbaum, later was compelled to hand over his entire art collection to Nazi officials.
Grünbaum’s collection was inventoried by art historian and Nazi Franz Kieslinger and then impounded in a Nazi-controlled warehouse in September 1938. All works by Schiele had been declared “degenerate,” and many of the confiscated works were auctioned or sold abroad to finance the Nazi Party. PJC
Justin Vellucci is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh.