The Return of Seven Schiele Works Marks a Turning Point in Nazi-Looted Art Claims

September 22, 2023 – Media Mention

Herrick partner, Lawrence M. Kaye, spoke to the Observer about the role of the Manhattan District Attorney's office in assisting with the return of seven pieces of Nazi-looted art from a group of art institutions and collectors to the heirs of the original owner. The article further discussed how their involvement is a significant step in for similar unresolved cases.

For decades, heirs of the original owner, Fritz Grünbaum, an Austrian-Jewish cabaret performer who was killed in 1941 at the Dachau concentration camp, have been attempting to recover the collection through civil litigation. With the help of the Manhattan District Attorney's Office, seven Egon Schiele works were recently voluntarily surrendered to the heirs. 

The article highlighted that in 2017, the Manhattan District Attorney’s office formed the Antiquities Trafficking Unit, which increasingly been on the lookout for illicit antiquities. In just the last five years, the unit has recovered more than 4,500 antiquities stolen from 30 countries, valued at more than $410 million. “It makes eminent sense to extend that to Nazi-looted art,” Larry noted.

The article explained that the office seized three additional Schiele works from institutions located outside of New York. These institutions had been involved in civil cases with the heirs prior to the seizure and while the institutions are located outside of New York, the works in question previously traveled through the state. “It will be very interesting to see how these other three museums handle it—whether they’ll seek to fight the seizures, and if so, what arguments they’re going to make,” said Larry.

The willingness of the New York institutions and collectors to hand over their holdings will also have reverberations in the art world, Larry continued. “These museums and collectors have set an example,” Larry asserted. “It is a significant step.”

The article further noted that one of the many unanswered questions following the return of the works is what, if any, significant impact the shift from civil to criminal litigation will have outside the state lines of New York. Outside of New York a majority of prosecutors have yet to match the aggressive cultural restitution demonstrated by the Manhattan District Attorney's unit. Art Law Attorneys like Larry suspect that the recent Grünbaum restitution will likely inspire more requests for criminal law to be applied in Nazi-looted art cases in the United States. “It may lead other prosecutors in other jurisdictions to do the same thing,” Larry concluded.

Read the full article in the Observer here.