The Art Institute of Chicago wants to keep its Schiele

Faced with a restitution request, the Art Institute of Chicago provided before the Supreme Court, Tuesday April 23, a detailed file to certify that it legally holds the watercolor Russian prisoner of war, created by the Austrian expressionist Egon Schiele (1890-1918) in 1916. Last February, a motion was filed by the New York prosecutor demanding the return of the drawing, estimated at $1.25 million (1.17 M€), arguing that it was looted by the Nazis. An allegation which, according to the museum, would be “factually unsupported and false “.

Before being purchased by the Art Institute of Chicago in 1966, Egon Schiele's drawing was in the collection of Fritz Grünbaum, an Austrian Jewish cabaret artist sent to the Dachau concentration camp in 1938, where he died three years later. The museum claims that Mathilde Lukacs, Fritz Grünbaum's sister-in-law, legitimately inherited the work and then sold it to Swiss art dealer Eberhard Kornfeld in 1956.

Egon Schiele (1890-1918), Russian prisoner of war1916, watercolor on graphite, 43 x 30 cm.

According to his heirs, Fritz Grünbaum was actually forced to hand over the work to the Nazi authorities in 1938, before being deported. In the complaint filed in February, the prosecutor said the museum demonstrated“willful blindness” when he acquired the drawing. They claim that the transaction between Mathilde Lukacs and Eberhard Kornfeld was knowingly falsified by the latter, accused of having laundered works of art looted by the Nazis. Still according to him, the Russian prisoner of war would have joined the rest of the collection at the Schenker & Co. warehouse in 1938 – a Viennese company affiliated with the Nazis – before being sold to finance the war effort.

The Art Institute of Chicago objects that no reliable evidence supports the passage of the design to Schenker & Co. and that even if it did, the warehouse also provided legal storage and moving services throughout the 'Europe. “The main allegations raised … have been the subject of decades of extensive civil litigation and government investigations, which have generally reached the opposite conclusion”according to which the work “was not stolen during WWII”underlined the museum in its file.

For several years now, the heirs of Fritz Grünbaum have been demanding the restitution of the Russian prisoner of war and many other works by Egon Schiele, scattered throughout American collections. In 2018, collector Richard Nagy had to suspend the sale of two of them. In 2023, the Manhattan prosecutor's office ruled in favor of the heirs and seven other drawings were returned to them by MoMA, the Morgan Library in New York, the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, the Ronald Lauder collection and the Vally Sabarsky trust.

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