Restitution has certainly been a hot topic in the art and museum spheres these last few years. From the busting of high-profile trafficking rings to the seizure of Ukrainian pieces throughout the war to the growing call to return historical artifacts to their rightful nations, it’s an issue that extends far back. Recently we saw an unprecedented return of works through the relinquishing of Fritz Grünbaum’s collected pieces by Egon Schiele, and now the works are set to headline a Christie’s auction this November.
Fritz Grünbaum was an Austrian Jewish cabaret performer in the early 20th century. Having studied law and volunteered in World War I, Grünbaum found his home in writing, performing, and serving as MC for cabarets in Berlin and Vienna. Actively political in his communities and critical of the Nazi party, he was targeted as a dissident first and his Jewish heritage second. He was deported to Dachau in 1938, and not long after a final New Year’s Eve performance for his fellow captives in 1941, he died.
Grünbaum’s collection was sizeable, with approximately eighty pieces by Schiele alone. Since the early 00s, his heirs have been attempting to regain their ancestor’s art collection, meeting mostly obstacles and denial. But when their legal representation reached out to Manhattan district attorney Alvin Bragg, their case was heightened to that of criminal court and Bragg issued warrants for the seizure of multiple works belonging to museums across New York. It has so far led to the return of close to a dozen works for the family.
Now, six of the returned Schiele works are slated for sale at Christie’s next month. Three watercolours on paper will be headlining the 20th Century Evening Sale and the other three will be part of the Impressionist and Modern Works on Paper Sale shortly after. The works carry with them estimates from $150,000 up to as high as $2.5 million.
While there certainly still hangs a dark weight around the context of Fritz Grünbaum’s collection, the fact that his family is finally seeing some form of restitution is heartening. It’s a valuable reminder of the fact that so many high-profile collectors and presenters have a trail of blood leading away from their galleries.