Egon Schiele art looted by Nazis during Holocaust seized

NY State Supreme Court warrants say "there is reasonable cause to believe" the works are stolen property

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Egon Schieles Russian War Prisoner from 1916. — BBC/Art Institute of Chicago
Egon Schiele's "Russian War Prisoner" from 1916. — BBC/Art Institute of Chicago

Three paintings that were purportedly plundered by the Nazis and are sought after by the descendants of a Jewish art collector who perished in the Holocaust were seized by US authorities on Thursday.

The authorities corroborated a New York Times report that alleged that these Egon Schiele paintings had been removed from three US-based museums by New York investigators.

The New York State Supreme Court stated in warrants issued on Tuesday, last week, that "there is reasonable cause to believe" the works are stolen property.

Over 70 years ago, the pieces were taken from the Oberlin College in Ohio, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh.

The long-lost paintings include "Russian War Prisoner" (1916), a watercolour and pencil drawing on paper that was taken from the Art Institute and is assessed at $1.25 million, and "Portrait of a Man" (1917), a pencil drawing on paper that was taken from the Carnegie Museums

Meanwhile, "Girl With Black Hair" (1911), a watercolor and pencil on paper work valued at $1.5 million, was seized from Oberlin, BBC reported.

Egon Schieles Girl With Black Hair from 1911. — BBC/Oberlin College Allen Memorial Art Museum
Egon Schiele's "Girl With Black Hair" from 1911. — BBC/Oberlin College Allen Memorial Art Museum

The heirs of Fritz Grunbaum, a prominent Jewish art collector and cabaret artist who died in the Dachau concentration camp in 1941, are seeking these art pieces, which can remain in their current location for 60 days before being taken to New York, according to the warrants.

"We are confident in our legal acquisition and lawful possession of this work," the Art Institute of Chicago said, adding that the piece held there is the subject of a civil case in federal court.

According to AFP, the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh pledged to "cooperate fully with inquiries from relevant authorities."

The Times reports a probe looks into the alleged Nazi theft of a dozen Schiele works, with heirs of Grunbaum attempting to recover them but courts ruled in 2005 that they had waited too long.

In 2016, to aid in recovering that art wrongfully taken or plundered by the Nazis, then-president Barack Obama signed the Holocaust Expropriated Art Recovery Act into law.

In 2018, Grunbaum's heirs were granted a positive court decision and were able to retrieve two pieces.

France has passed a law to facilitate property restitution for property looted from Jews under German Nazi rule, while the Czech Republic in 2009 reported that 100,000 out of an estimated 650,000 stolen works have not been returned, highlighting the ongoing issue.