The New York Times recently reported on a lawsuit filed in New York State Court in which the heirs of Fritz Grunbaum are citing the recently enacted Holocaust Expropriated Art Recovery Act (known as the HEAR Act) in an effort to claim two valuable drawings by the late Austrian artist Egon Schiele. The HEAR Act, adopted last December, has been widely praised as a necessary tool to provide the victims of Holocaust-era persecution and their heirs a fair opportunity to recover works of art confiscated or misappropriated by the Nazis during World War II.
Grunbaum’s nearly 450 piece exquisite art collection has been the center of controversy almost since the collection was confiscated from his Vienna apartment in 1938. Over the years, Grunbaum’s heirs have argued that the collection was stolen by the Nazis.
Others, such as collectors, dealers and some museums have countered that the artwork was inventoried by the Nazis and not stolen, and that 53 of the some 81 Schiele works were legitimately sold by Grunbaum’s sister-in-law to a Swiss art dealer in 1956. These parties are of the view that previous courts have found that the Schiele works were not stolen and that no further claims should be considered on such works.
However, the Grunbaum heirs assert that the previous claims, in the present case and others, were determined on legal technicalities, not the merit of the argument that the works were looted by the Nazis and that this is the type of case that the new law was enacted to address.
The HEAR Act creates a federal statute of limitations for such claims that is six years from the time of “actual discovery” of the whereabouts of the work. The new law is consistent with the “spirit of two international proclamations stating that technicalities should not be employed to prevent stolen property from being returned to rightful owners.”
The two Schiele works being sought by Grunbaum’s heirs, namely, “Woman in a Black Pinafore” (1911) and “Woman Hiding Her Face” (1912), were part of the 1956 sale to the Swiss dealer. The attorney for Grunbaum’s heirs, however, argues that the circumstances of the 1956 sales transaction were never fully investigated and that the lost works were not discovered by the heirs until they were noticed for sale at a 2015 art fair. The two Schiele drawings are said to be valued together at about $5 million.
The Grunbaum heirs’ suit was filed in November 2015 after learning that Richard Nagy, a London art dealer and Schiele specialist, was trying to sell the two Schiele drawings at an art fair at the Park Avenue Armory earlier that same year. Nagy has fought the claim in court by arguing that he acquired both works “in good faith and in a commercially reasonable manner” after the United States Supreme Court declined to hear the attorney for Grunbaum’s heirs appeal of an earlier case. Nagy’s attorneys argue that prior court rulings on the Schiele works from the Grunbaum collection were based on a finding that such works had been properly conveyed in 1956. Specifically, Nagy’s attorneys assert that the attorney for Grunbaum’s heirs was wrong to invoke the new HEAR Act because the law does not apply to cases where a final judgment has been reached.
Agnes Peresztegi, president and legal counsel of the Commission on Art Recovery, an organization founded by billionaire art collector Ronald S. Lauder, however, sides with the position of the attorney for Grunbaum’s heirs. She indicated that the prior case was not decided on the merits, but rather on a technical issue that too much time had passed to pursue a claim. Peresztegi “welcomes the use of the new law in deciding whether many of the Grunbaum collection’s Schieles, including the two owned by Mr. Nagy, were stolen.”
The attorney for Grunbaum’s heirs maintains a positive attitude regarding the case in which he recently indicated that “[w]e believe that the expert report and scholarship of Dr. Jonathan Petropoulos, the world’s leading expert in this field, will persuade the court that the evidence shows that Fritz Grunbaum was a victim of Nazi art looting.”
We will continue to monitor this case and will report updates on same on the Art Law blog.