Valued collectively at $9.5m, the pieces of art were returned to Grünbaum’s family during a ceremony and press conference Wednesday in New York. The family had been fighting to reclaim the looted art.
Grünbaum, a popular Austrian cabaret performer and songwriter, had amassed a trove of almost 450 pieces of art before the Second World War began. This trove included 81 sketches and paintings by Schiele, a protege of Gustav Klimt.
Grünbaum’s routines openly derided Nazism and Hitler and were banned. He was arrested in 1938 and imprisoned at Dachau concentration camp in southern Germany, according to the Holocaust research project Music and the Holocaust.
His wife Elisabeth was later forced to hand over her husband’s art collection. Grünbaum died in 1941 in Dachau – that has been a source of embarassment for several post-war German governments.
He died when his wife was in another concentration camp in Minsk, Belarus in 1942.
“I hope this moment can serve as a reminder that despite the horrific death and destruction caused by the Nazis, it is never too late to recover some of what we lost, honor the victims, and reflect on how their families are still impacted to this day,” Manhattan district attorney Alvin Bragg said.
“We still have so much to learn from Fritz Grünbaum and these seven pieces that he found to be so beautiful.”
Timothy Reif, Grünbaum’s great-grandnephew and a federal judge in New York City, said about the state and federal authorities: “Your recovery of these artworks reminds us once again that history’s largest mass murder has long concealed history’s greatest robbery.”
The Grünbaum collection of 81 artworks from Schiele, who completed most of his work in a brief period leading up to his untimely death in 1918 at the age of 28, were mostly self-portraits and depictions of Schiele’s spouse Edith.
The collection included the pencil-on-paper drawing of Schiele’s wife, Edith (1915), a colourful watercolour painting of the artist, I Love Antithesis and Girl Putting on Shoe.
Schiele’s artwork was declared “degenerated” by Hitler and was looted by Nazi authorities to fund the party.
Mr Bragg said Grünbaum’s collection of artworks changed hands repeatedly after they were sold by the Nazis and ended up for sale at a Swiss auction house and later in the collection of a New York-based gallerist before being sold again.
The heirs of Grünbaum fought a legal battle in a court in New York State in 2018 for two Schiele pieces which were with a London-based collector named Richard Nagy.
The judge ruled in their favour saying it was unlikely Grünbaum voluntarily gave the artworks away when he was in detention.
Two other pieces were voluntarily given back by New York City’s Museum of Modern Art. The museum said they were returned “after they were presented with evidence that they were stolen by the Nazis”, the DA’s office said.
“The Nazis systematically murdered most of the Grünbaum family members,” Mr Reif said.
“By recovering these long-lost artworks,” he said, “our law enforcement authorities have today achieved a measure of justice for the victims of murder and robbery”.
The Nazis had stolen 50,000 works of art from 1933-45, mostly from Jewish families who were arrested and killed in concentration camps during the Holocaust. Some of the looted artworks included works of most artists, including van Gogh, Picasso and Chagall, according to some estimates.