Sotheby’s And Christie’s In Egon Schiele Restitution Roulette


On November 5th, Christie’s is auctioning a 1910 Schiele watercolor ‘Town on the Blue River’. The auction house is doing this in conjunction with a restitution agreement that views the work as looted art, and will provide compensation to Grünbaum’s heirs. Sotheby’s, is offering a 1917 goauche and crayon on paper, ‘Seated Woman With Bent Left Leg’ on November 4th, yet they will not be compensating the heirs to the work.

According to a story in the New York Times; Christie’s and Sotheby’s respective decisions regarding the handling of two Egon Schiele pieces that were both once owned by Fritz Grünbaum, a German cabaret performer who died in Daschau in 1941, are “striking” and “notable” in their difference.

“The tale of these two works with a shared history illustrates how, even 70 years after the war, experts in the international art market can disagree substantively about how to handle the sale of works once owned by Jews in Europe during the Nazi era.” States the story.

One would presume that considering both works of art were indisputably owned by Grünbaum, that they should be treated similarly, if not the same – on the market regarding the provenance of the works . But this history has been hotly debated; as after Grünbaum was arrested and sent to the Daschau where he subsequently died, what happened to the works has been questioned, particularly whether or not his sister-in-law Mathilde Lukacs-Herzl came to possess and later sell either or both of these works of art to Swiss dealers.

The fact that ‘Seated Woman With Bent Left Leg’ is being offered at Sotheby’s had been the subject of an eight-year court battle that ended in favour of its current owner. Shedding light on the provenance of that work.

The only distinction to effect how the works have been handled is that ‘Seated Woman’, was the subject of a lengthy legal battle after David Bakalar, who purchased it in 1963 for a mere £2,600, was forced to withdraw it from a planned Sotheby’s London sale in 2005. The work ‘Town on the Blue River’, having been acquired by Ilona Gerstel in 1965 is being offered from her estate, was not the subject of any legal debate – according to the story.

The U.S. Court of Appeals, Second Circuit, New York, stated that the “District Court found that the Drawing [Seated Woman] was not looted by the Nazis. Vavra and Fischer [the claimants] argue that the District Court’s finding is clearly erroneous and that the Nazis stole the drawing. However, Bakalar traced the provenance back to Mathilde Lukacs, Grünbaum’s sister-in-law, who sold it to a gallery in 1956. The Nazis stole the drawing from Grünbaum only to subsequently return or sell it to his Jewish sister-in-law, according to hypothesis, and does not come close to showing that the District Court’s finding was clearly erroneous” – these were the arguments and findings of October 2012.

The listed provenance of the works in the catalogues of the respective auction houses is different regarding the ownership immediately after Grünbaum. The story continues both houses “steered clear of works once owned by Grünbaum out of concern any sale might be challenged,” and that they now “say they make decisions case by case” – following the 2005 withdrawal.

The complexities of the case has been described as “restitution roulette,” and has “become particularly acute in cases like Grünbaum’s, where there are conflicting accounts, and large gaps in the records, which create differing notions of what constitutes a just resolution” according to the story.


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