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‘At best,’ Chicago museum showed ‘willful blindness’ buying Nazi-looted art

The Manhattan district attorney’s office accuses the Art Institute of Chicago of insufficient provenance research when it bought Egon Schiele’s “Russian War Prisoner.”

The Art Institute of Chicago museum in downtown Chicago. Photo by Menachem Wecker.
The Art Institute of Chicago museum in downtown Chicago. Photo by Menachem Wecker.

The Art Institute of Chicago was at best intentionally indifferent to the antisemitic circumstances surrounding an Austrian expressionist drawing that it purchased, a 160-page complaint filed by the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office alleges.

In the filing, Alvin Bragg seeks a warrant to search the premises of one of the country’s oldest and most comprehensive art museums, located on Michigan Avenue in downtown Chicago and perhaps best known from the 1986 comedy “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.”

Bragg’s office states that Egon Schiele’s 1916 drawing “Russian War Prisoner” ought to be returned to judge Timothy Reif, David Fraenkel and Milos Vavra. The three are the heirs of the work’s original owner, Fritz Grünbaum, a “well-known Viennese cabaret artist” whom the Nazis arrested in 1938 and sent to Dachau, where he was killed in 1941.

Reif, a federal judge, contacted the Manhattan D.A.’s office on Dec. 2, 2022, about the work that belonged to his great-uncle, Grünbaum. (Reif’s grandfather was also Grünbaum’s cousin.) Vavra is the great-nephew of the late Elise Zozuli, Grünbaum’s sister, and Fraenkel and Reif are named as co-heirs, co-executors and co-trustees in the will of Leon Fischer, the grandson of Max Herzl—the brother of Grünbaum’s third wife Elisabeth, per the court filing.

The Manhattan D.A.’s office launched a grand jury investigation of 11 drawings that belonged to Grünbaum on Dec. 22, 2022. Those in possession of 10 of the 11 (including the Museum of Modern Art, Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Morgan Library and Museum and Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh) agreed to return them. One was given directly to the heirs; seven were returned to heirs on Sept. 20, 2023; and two were given to the heirs on Jan. 19, 2024.

The final one, which the Art Institute of Chicago holds and which the Manhattan D.A.’s office alleges is stolen property, has been the object of a court warrant since Sept. 12, 2023.

The Manhattan D.A.’s office and the Art Institute agreed—due to the “delicate condition of the drawing” and with the museum’s guarantee it would protect the work and agree to provide photographs or measurements on request—that the work would be “seized in place,” first for 60 days, then (on Nov. 3, 2023) for another 60 days and, finally, on Dec. 28, 2023, for it to remain so for 90 days—a request the court granted on Jan. 8.

The Manhattan D.A.’s office states that it told the Art Institute of Chicago on Sept. 12, 2023, that it intended to return the drawing to its true owner. The museum “immediately notified us that they would be contesting this return of the drawing. Hence, this motion,” per the court filing.

Drawings of Schiele’s that the Manhattan D.A.’s office called “similar” to the one in question that the Art Institute of Chicago holds, sold at auction for between $2 million and $11 million each in November 2023, according to the court filing.

‘One of the most flagrant Nazi-era lootings’

On its website, the Art Institute of Chicago notes only in the drawing’s provenance information that the work passed to Grünbaum’s wife Elizabeth (née Herzl), then to her sister Mathilde Lukacs, before passing through the hands of the Bern, Switzerland auction house Gutekunst & Klipstein; Galerie St. Etienne in New York; and then David Kimball and Leo Askew, before B. C. Holland sold it to the Art Institute of Chicago in 1966.

The Manhattan D.A.’s office tells a very different story.

“The documented inventorying, impounding, and eventual sale of Fritz Grünbaum’s stolen art collection is one of the most flagrant Nazi-era lootings of a Holocaust victim’s cultural property yet uncovered,” it states.

“The evidence demonstrates that Grünbaum’s art collection, particularly his 80-plus works by Egon Schiele, were systematically stolen from Grünbaum after he was imprisoned in the Dachau Concentration Camp for the crime of being Jewish and then sold for personal profit as part of a conspiracy,” it adds.

The conspiracy centered on two people: Eberhard Kornfeld, a “Nazi-looted-art trafficker and launderer,” who ran the Bern auction house and worked with those with direct ties to Hitler, and Otto Kallir, who was Jewish and ran the New York. gallery. The Art Institute of Chicago’s provenance listing on its website doesn’t indicate that either Gutekunst & Klipstein or Galerie St. Etienne had any concerning ties to Nazis.

Kallir “had coveted Grünbaum’s Schiele collection” prior to the latter’s arrest in 1938, per the court filing. “After Grünbaum’s Schiele artworks, including ‘Russian War Prisoner,’ were stolen by the Nazis and laundered by Kornfeld, many were brought to the United States by Kallir, and ultimately purchased from his New York City gallery by American museums or private collectors,” per the filing.

Antisemitism

In a rough sketch of Grünbaum’s background, the court filing notes that the trained lawyer and avid art collector, who went on to perform on the stage and to fight in the Austro-Hungarian army, faced Jew-hatred.

During a 1910 performance of his, an officer in the Austro-Hungarian imperial army “started heckling Grünbaum with antisemitic insults,” per the court filing. “Grünbaum left the stage, went over to the officer’s table, slapped him and then calmly returned to his performance.”

After the war, he acted in movies, “recorded pop songs in Germany and co-founded the legendary Kabarett Simpl in Vienna—where he was the famed master of ceremonies,” per the filing. “It was this fame that was to assure his imprisonment and murder at Dachau 20 years later.”

Fritz Grünbaum
Fritz Grünbaum’s prisoner registry card at Dachau concentration camp. Credit: Arolsen Archives-International Center on Nazi Persecution via Wikipedia.

Two days before Germany invaded Austria in March 1938, Grünbaum “walked out onto the darkened stage at Kabarett Simpl and flailed around, crying, ‘I see nothing, absolutely nothing! I must have wandered into National Socialist culture,'” the filing adds.

Seeing nothing appears to have characterized some of those who possessed the Schiele work in the years and decades after Grünbaum’s death.

The Art Institute of Chicago’s “possession and display of the stolen ‘Russian War Prisoner’ is the culmination of a multinational conspiracy that has been in continuous operation since at least the 1950s and involves numerous conspirators and many dozens of distinct overt and criminal acts,” per the court filing.

After Fritz and Elisabeth Grünbaum were turned away at the Czech border, having tried to flee Austria on March 10, 1938, he was imprisoned and she had to comply with Nazi laws, including the requirement on April 26, 1938, that Jews declare their assets. Although imprisoned in Dachau, he still had to file his own declaration of assets, and the court filing maintains that documentation purported to include Grünbaum’s wishes when it did not. Through some sort of “sleight-of-hand” or other mechanism that purported to be legal, the collection was removed from the Grünbaums’ possession and moved to Nazi-controlled warehouses.

The Nazis first stole Grünbaum’s collection of Schiele works, “but it was Eberhard Kornfeld and Otto Kallir who sanitized and laundered the drawings so effectively that they could be displayed in well-heeled American museums and collections,” the filing alleges. “It was Kornfeld’s supply of Schieles that fed Kallir’s desire to make a name for his gallery in the United States by establishing a profitable market for Austrian Expressionist Art—his specialty—in his newly adopted country.”

Unlike criminal conspiracies involving guns, drugs or embezzlement, “art-trafficking conspiracies such as this one, the proceeds of the crime, i.e., the looted artwork, must be hidden in plain sight,” it adds. “Indeed, it is the display of the artwork—ideally in a prominent museum—that most effectively increases its value.”

“Just as a celebrity donning a particular article of clothing helps inflate the value of that clothing, so too does the exhibition of an artwork at a museum—the more prominent, the better—improve the value of the owner’s next sale of that artwork,” it adds.

“Thus, a conspiracy to traffic and distribute art is, by definition, ongoing as long as the art that is being trafficked is still being displayed and sold at prices that are only possible if the artwork is legal,” per the filing. “That is exactly the case here.”

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