By Jason Stern
Holocaust Expropriated Art Recovery Act and the Turnover Proceeding: Estate of Grunbaum
When the Nazi party came to power in 1933 they created an entire military unit with the sole mandate of plundering valuable artifacts to finance their war effort. This regime worked tirelessly beginning in 1933 with the formation of the Nazi party until their total annihilation in 1945 at the pillaging and embezzling of anything they could convert to currency. All told, the Nazis looted more than 20% of Europe’s entire inventory of art encompassing 750,000 pieces during the war. Of the 750,000 pieces which were misappropriated more than 100,000 pieces still remain at large. These remaining unaccounted works of art are estimated to be worth in the tens of billions of dollars.
Many of the artworks stolen were taken from prominent Jewish families in Europe by force before their deportation to death camps. During its reign, the Nazi regime perpetrated the single largest theft of wealth the world had ever seen. For this reason, in 2016, the United States enacted the Holocaust Expropriated Art Recovery Act. The act allows causes of action for the recovery of artwork lost between January 1, 1933 and December 31, 1945 as a result of Nazi persecution. The act now permits such recovery within 6 years of the claimant’s actual discovery of both the identity and location of the art as well as those parties claiming ownership.
Estate of Fritz Grunbaum
In 1930 Austrian entertainer, Fritz Grunbaum was a famous night club owner and cabaret performer as well as an outspoken critic of the Third Reich. In fact, the Broadway musical and movie Cabaret were inspired on his life events. Grunbaum was also one of the biggest art collectors in Europe amassing more than 450 pieces of priceless works from various artists. One of Grunbaum’s favorite artists was Egon Schiele. Grunbaum had gathered 80 pieces of Schiele’s works in his portfolio alone, two of which are depicted above. However, Grunbaum’s fortunes changed in 1941 when the Nazi’s deported Grunbaum and his wife to Dachau death camp where they were both executed. Once deported the Nazis stole the entire Grunbaum collection selling his works off to art dealers to fund their war effort which required vast amounts of resources.
Recently two of Grunbaum’s stolen Schiele artworks were spotted at an art exhibition on Park Avenue in New York City. The London art dealer running the exhibit, Richard Nagy, claimed title to the works which he claimed were purchased not from Grunbaum but Grunbaum’s sister-in-law. Pursuant to the 2016, Holocaust Expropriated Art recovery Act, NY estate lawyers for Grunbaum’s heirs seized the two paintings on exhibit and initiated a turnover proceeding to claim them as assets of the estate. The two Egon Schiele pieces, in question are indicated above, were titled, “Woman in a Black Pinafore” and “Woman Hiding Her Face”. Together it is estimated that these two works alone would bring in $7 million dollars at auction. Considering Grunbaum had another 78 Schiele works in his collection at the time of his death, it’s easy to see how much wealth was pillaged at the hands of the Nazis and by their modern day collaborators.
While attorneys for the London art dealer, Richard Nagy, refuted these claims asserting Grunbaum never owned these paintings, these assertions were easily repudiated. Grunbaum’s collection was well documented as well as the Nazi’s transfer of ownership which involved a power of attorney obtained at gunpoint. As such, in April of 2018, New York Justice Charles Ramos ruled that the two paintings should be sold at auction by Christies Auction House and their proceeds distributed to Grunbaum’s heirs.
Pursuant to the NY estate law, one such way to bring this action is by initiating a NY turnover proceeding. NY estate lawyers understand that SCPA §2103 provides this exact relief to fiduciaries of NY estates seeking to recover assets claimed to rightfully belong to an estate. As such it is clearly within the jurisdiction of the New York Surrogate’s Courts to hear cases involving property within the State of New York that was wrongfully misappropriated pursuant to the Holocaust Expropriated Art Recovery Act as well.
If you think a family member may have been taken advantage of by an opportunistic relative or friend it never hurts to ask the opinion of an experienced NY estate lawyer to see if it amounts to undue influence or fraud. Feel free to call the NYC estate lawyers at The Law Offices of Jason W. Stern & Associates for a free consultation at (718) 261-2444. Our NYC estate lawyers have more than 50 years of combined NY estate law experience probating the estates for families like yours in the counties of Queens, New York, Kings, Bronx, Westchester, Rockland, Nassau, Orange, Dutchess as well as in the State of New Jersey.