Heirs of Nazi-looted paintings can proceed with auction after legal battle ends
A nearly seven-year-long legal battle over two paintings stolen by the Nazis has finally come to an end after an art dealer lost his bid to appeal, freeing the heirs of the works to put them up for auction.
The artworks, “Woman Hiding her Face” and “Woman in Black Pinafore” by Austrian expressionist Egon Schiele, are expected to go under the hammer at Christie’s in the fall.
Timonthy Reif and David Fraenkel, the owners, sued London-based dealer Richard Nagy in 2015 for the return of the paintings.
They argued that their ancestor, Austrian Holocaust victim Fritz Grunbaum, had been forced to hand over the works — and the rest of his $5 million collection of paintings — to the Nazis.
Grunbaum, a Jewish cabaret performer, was then sent to the Dachau concentration camp, where he was killed in 1941.
His heirs filed suit after learning the Schiele paintings ended up in Nagy’s hands decades later — and that the dealer had put them up for sale at the Park Avenue Armory.
Reif and Fraenkel said they had proof that their ancestor had been forced to sign a document giving up his precious collection.
A Manhattan judge in 2018 sided with the heirs and ordered Nagy to give back the two paintings.
Nagy appealed the ruling forcing him to give the paintings back, and lost.
He then asked to have his case heard in the state’s highest court, but the New York Court of Appeals denied his bid last week, bringing the court saga to a close.
Nagy can take no further legal action and Reif and Fraenkel are free to proceed with their plans to auction off the works according to their reps.
Reif told The Post that while they don’t know the current value of the two pieces, the most recent appraisal of the works from 2018, valued them at $3.4 million combined.
He said that he proceeds from the auction will go into a foundation that supports young artists.
“This decision affirms the need to remember and to carry on today in a way that can right a tiny piece of the horrific injustice that occurred 81 years ago and improve our world today through the work of the Fritz Grünbaum Trust,” Reif said in a statement.
Nagy’s lawyers Bill Charron and Thad Stauber said: “The New York federal courts previously decided that the Schiele artworks from the Grunbaum collection where not stolen during World War II and had been saved by the family.”
The lawyers were referring to a 2012 ruling in a separate case that a collector, David Bakalar, could keep a different Schiele piece despite claims by Grunbaum heirs that it was stolen from the Nazis.
“The fact that the New York state courts allowed themselves to unsettle the federal rulings should be disturbing to everyone,” Nagy’s lawyers said.
Reif’s lawyer, Sam Blaustein, said that the two cases are unrelated as they involve different artworks, a different plaintiff and a different timeline.