Chicago Art Institute Can Keep Egon Schiele Work

Chicago Art Institute Secured a Temporary Legal Win of Disputed Egon Schiele Work, Court Rules Once Again.

Mar 5, 2024By Angela Davic, News, Discoveries, In-depth Reporting, and Analysis
Egon Schiele, Chicago Art Institute
The Art Institute of Chicago. Via Chris Richard


Chicago Art Institute gained a short legal victory in a lengthy struggle with the heirs of Fritz Grünbaum, over Egon Schiele’s work. In a ruling issued on February 28, Judge John G. Koeltl agreed with the museum. With this, the court enabled it to keep Egon Schiele’s artwork Russian War Prisoner (1916) in its possession. The judge rejected a motion that the collector’s family submitted.


Chicago Art Institute Pressured by NY Dispute

Egon Schiele, Russian War Prisoner (1916). Via Artnet


Overall, his heirs asked the court to review an action from the fall that stalled their effort to get back the work of art. The cultural institution in question earlier filed the suit in federal court, and a judge found it in its favour in November 2023. Grünbaum’s descendants, Timothy Reif, David Fraenkel, and Milos Vavra, tried to recover the work. This piece is a portrait of a seated male soldier.


Allegedly, Nazi officials illegally acquired the piece after pressuring Grünbaum to give up his wealth, and eventually went to prison. According to court filings, Koeltl refuted allegations that the institution obtained the piece illegally. “All of the allegations in the amended complaint support the idea that the defendant is a good-faith possessor”, the latest decision states. A parallel court dispute in New York over the piece’s restitution is also putting more pressure on the museum.


Entrance of the Art Institute of Chicago. Photo: Education Images/UIG


Last month, the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, which handles cultural property cases, claimed that the piece was stolen. The effort is part of a larger investigation by New York authorities into reclaiming art, seized during WWII. The work of art is at the moment in the museum under an interim seizure-in-place injunction. In the brief, Koeltl denied the heirs’ plea for the court to revisit its November ruling.

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Problems Not Only With Ownership

Self-Portrait with Chinese Lantern Plant by Egon Schiele, 1912. Source: Leopold Museum, Vienna


The judge also claimed the allegations expired by 2009 under state law. He also stated their claim was unable for renewing by the 2016 Holocaust Expropriated Art Recovery (HEAR) Act. The HEAR attempts to lower hurdles for heirs pursuing claims on art looted during WWII. Reif and two family members attempted to move the commencement date of their lawsuit to 1966, when the museum initially acquired the creation. The court argued that the modifications did not address the core problem of the statute of limitations.


Megan Michienzi, a representative for the Art Institute of Chicago, said that the latest decision “specifically rejected” implications that the museum acquired the work unlawfully. Michienzi stated, “We have always acted in good faith. If we had this work unlawfully, we would return it, but that is not the case here, as is made clear in the latest federal court ruling”. However, Raymond Dowd, a lawyer for Grünbaum’s heirs, refuted the AIC’s claim that this ruling “reaffirms” the museum’s legal title to the Schiele painting.


Self-Portrait with a Chinese Lantern Plant by Egon Schiele, 1912, Leopold Museum


The dispute remains ongoing. According to the most recent court documents, the museum filed a counterclaim asking Koeltl to grant it legal title to Russian War Prisoner. The Art Institute of Chicago has until March 13 to dismiss the claim, which would end the current suit. “The ball is in AIC’s court now to prove that it has good title”, Dowd said. It’s unclear to what extent the most recent order enables the museum to hold the work long-term.

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By Angela DavicNews, Discoveries, In-depth Reporting, and AnalysisAngela is a journalism student at the Faculty of Political Science in Belgrade and received a scholarship for continued education in Prague. She completed her internship at the daily newspaper DANAS and worked as an executive editor at Talas.