Last month, seven works on paper by Egon Schiele were restituted to the heirs of their former owner, Fritz Grünbaum, who was killed at a Nazi concentration camp during World War II. Now, six of those pieces are about to hit the block at Christie’s in New York.
Three watercolor portraits by the Austrian artist will lead the auction house’s 20th Century Evening Sale on November 9. These include Stehende Frau (Dirne) (1912) and Selbstbildnis (1910), which both carry a pre-sale estimate of $1–2 million, and Ich liebe Gegensätze (1912), which is expected to fetch $1.5–2.5 million.
Christie’s Impressionist and Modern Works on Paper Sale on November 11 will feature the other three artworks: Knabenbildnis (Herbert Reiner) (1910), estimated at $500,000–800,000; Bildnis Edith Schiele (1915), tagged at $150,000–250,000; and Sitzende Frau (1910), predicted to go for $600,000–900,000. None of the six pieces currently carries a guarantee.
Though the artworks span just five years, they represent a critical period for Schiele, said Vanessa Fusco, Christie’s Head of Impressionist & Modern Art. “What is remarkable about this group of six works is the way it really shows the artistic evolution that Schiele underwent.”
1910, when three of the pieces were created, was a “pivotal, breakout year” for the artist, Fucso explained. “It’s the moment when he stepped out from under the shadow of his mentor Gustav Klimt. He also drops the decorative background…and puts his figures in these empty spaces so that you can really focus on just the human condition. That’s a rather radical shift that comes around this time.”
The selection offers a window into Schiele’s personal life, too. Selbstbildnis is a self-portrait, while Ich liebe Gegensätze was painted during a two-week stint at an Austrian prison. Schiele’s drawing of his wife, Edith, is the barest of the bunch, but also the most intimate.
Fifty percent of proceeds from the sales will go to David Fraenkel and Timothy Reif, Grünbaum’s heirs and co-trustees of his estate, who plan to put their share toward a scholarship program for young musicians organized by the newly-created Grünbaum Fischer Foundation. The remaining profits will head to another Grünbaum descendent, Milos Vavra.
A spokesperson for Christie’s declined to comment when asked if the auction house would take its typical consignment fees for the six artworks.
Last November, Christie’s auctioned off two other Schiele works on paper—Woman in a Black Pinafore (1911) and Woman Hiding Her Face (1912)—that Grünbaum’s heirs had recovered through a lawsuit against London-based art dealer Richard Nagy. They sold for $500,000 and $2.5 million, respectively.
The auctions mark the latest chapter in a knotty, years-long saga involving these and dozens of other Schiele artworks owned by Grünbaum, a Jewish cabaret performer deported to Germany’s Dachau concentration camp in 1938. While detained, Grünbaum was forced to sign a power of attorney and surrender his artworks, which were subsequently parceled off and sold to benefit the Nazi Party. Grünbaum died at Dachau in 1941.
In recent years, Fraenkel, Reif, and Vavra have sought to regain control of Grünbaum’s Schieles by filing civil lawsuits against the institutions and private collectors that now own them. Their efforts were sped up late last fall when the heirs’ lawyer, Raymond Dowd, approached the office of Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg with evidence that some pieces had, at one time, been trafficked through New York.
Bragg’s office launched an investigation into at least a dozen Schiele pieces, effectively making the respective cases a matter of criminal, not just civil, court.
Three weeks ago, the DA’s office issued warrants for the seizure of one Schiele each from the Art Institute of Chicago, the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh, and the Allen Memorial Art Museum at Oberlin College. Just yesterday, Bragg announced that the latter two institutions agreed to voluntarily turn over the artworks to Grünbaum’s heirs, despite previously making claims to legal ownership.
On September 20, Bragg’s office hosted a ceremony for the transfer of seven other Schieles—including the six set for sale at Christie’s in November—to the heirs. Four came from the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Morgan Library & Museum, and the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. The remaining three were surrendered by Ronald Lauder, a billionaire and president of the World Jewish Congress, and the trust of prominent collector Serge Sabarsky.
“We are proud to have now returned nine Egon Schiele drawings to Mr. Grünbaum’s relatives and continue to reflect on his indelible legacy,” Bragg said in a statement this week.
Dowd praised the “courageousness” of the DA’s Office in taking on restitution cases in the “museum town” of New York, likening it to lawyers in Texas going after the oil industry. “DA Bragg taking on these monster institutions that are super well-connected with the best legal teams that money can buy and layers of rich people around them—it’s truly historic,” Dowd said.
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