A pencil and watercolor artwork from the Art Institute of Chicago, along with two other artworks by Austrian expressionist Egon Schiele from two other museums, have been seized because they were allegedly stolen from Jewish families by the Nazis, according to Manhattan District Attorney Alvin L. Bragg, Jr.
“This would have been sold through New York which gives him jurisdiction,” explained Patty Gerstenblith, the director of DePaul University’s Center for Art, Museum & Cultural Heritage Law.
Gerstenblith says some pieces of art taken by the Nazis were returned after the war, but others were sold. Sometimes those works were sold with a veneer of legality, sometimes not,she said.
“They looted artworks on a truly massive scale,” said Gerstenblith, who served as an appointee of President Barack Obama as the chair of the President's Cultural Property Advisory Committee in the U.S. Department of State.
Feeling out of the loop? We'll catch you up on the Chicago news you need to know. Sign up for the weekly Chicago Catch-Up newsletter here.
Many of them, mostly those of modern impressionists and expressionists like Schiele, made their way into the hands of art dealers who sold onto the international market often through Switzerland.
“Russian Prisoner of War” was once part of the extensive collection of Fritz Grünbaum, who before the Nazis invaded, was a well-known cabaret performer and songwriter in Austria. He died at the Dachau concentration camp in 1941.
In a statement, the Art Institute said, “We are confident in our legal acquisition and lawful possession of this work.” “The piece is the subject of civil litigation in federal court, where this dispute is being properly litigated and where we are also defending our legal ownership."
Other major museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, have been forced to give back seized artworks and antiquities that were found to be stolen, costing them millions of dollars. Many museums, such as the Art Institute, Gerstenblith said, have agreed to apply higher provenance standards to the works they acquire to make sure they were not originally stolen.