Billionaire Ronald Lauder, others to return art to heirs of collector killed by Nazis

Key Points
  • Billionaire Ronald Lauder is among several entities voluntarily returning Egon Schiele artworks to the heirs of their owner, whose collection was looted before he was killed by the Nazis.
  • The plan to return Schiele's works to the heirs of Fritz Grünbaum was arranged by the Manhattan district attorney's office.
  • Lauder, the Estee Lauder cosmetics heir, acquired the artwork "through an art dealer decades after it was misappropriated" from Grünbaum, his spokesperson said.

In this article

Egon Schiele, "I Love Antithesis" (1912)
Source: Alamy

Billionaire Ronald Lauder agreed to surrender a work of art looted by Nazis in 1938 from a Jewish cabaret performer who was later killed in a concentration camp.

Lauder, the heir to the Estee Lauder cosmetics fortune, joined one other collector and three museums in voluntarily surrendering seven drawings by Austrian expressionist Egon Schiele to the heirs of Fritz Grünbaum, according to the Manhattan district attorney's office.

The antiquities trafficking unit of the district attorney's office earlier this year seized the Schiele drawings, which have a total estimated value of more than $9.5 million.

Lauder, who is president of the World Jewish Congress, had possession of Schiele's 1912 color drawing "I Love Antithesis," which is worth an estimated $2.75 million.

Lauder acquired the drawing "through an art dealer decades after it was misappropriated" by the Nazis, his spokesperson said.

An avid art collector, Lauder co-founded the Neue Galerie in New York, which displays a range of art from Austria and Germany between 1890 and 1940 — including numerous works by Schiele.

Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, in a statement, said that Grünbaum "was a man of incredible depth and spirit, and his memory lives on through the artworks that are finally being returned to his relatives."

Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, is seen at Nazi death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau on Jan. 26, 2020, one day before the 75th anniversary of its liberation.
Wojtek Radwanski | Afp | Getty Images

"I hope this moment can serve as a reminder that despite the horrific death and destruction caused by the Nazis, it is never too late to recover some of what we lost, honor the victims, and reflect on how their families are still impacted to this day," Bragg said.

The seven artworks being returned had been held by two New York museums, the Museum of Modern Art and the Morgan Library & Museum, and the Santa Barbara Museum of Art in California, along with Lauder and the estate of art collector Serge Sabarsky.

Grünbaum acquired a collection of 81 Schiele works before he was arrested in Austria in 1938 by the Nazis. They forced him to execute a power of attorney in favor of his wife, Elisabeth Grünbaum, and then compelled her to hand over his entire art collection.

Grünbaum was murdered at the Dachau concentration camp in Germany in 1941. Elisabeth Grünbaum was killed at a Nazi death camp in Belarus in 1942.

Timothy Reif, a relative of Fritz Grünbaum's, praised Bragg, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and other officials for having "succeeded in solving crimes perpetrated over 80 years ago."

"Their righteous and courageous collaboration in the pursuit of justice — unique among prosecutors and law enforcement in this entire nation, if not the world — shine a bright light for all to follow," Reif said, according to the D.A.'s press release.

Reif is a judge on the United States Court of International Trade, which handles civil actions arising out of international trade laws.

Reif was appointed to that court by former President Donald Trump.

Timothy Reif, then U.S. Trade Representative general counsel, speaks about a trade enforcement action during a news conference at the U.S. Trade Representative's office in Washington, D.C., Feb. 10, 2014.
Luis M. Alvarez | AP

Lauder is a longtime acquaintance of Trump, and in 2019 gave nearly $100,000 to the Republican National Committee as it was working to reelect him as president.

Lauder's spokesman previously told CNBC he would not back Trump's 2024 presidential campaign.

In a statement Wednesday, Lauder said, "I am pleased and honored to be able to help Fritz Grünbaum's heirs continue their laudable efforts to recover his legacy."

"I hope that this restitution process brings healing to the Grünbaum family and helps to keep alive the memory of Mr. Grünbaum and his wife Elisabeth, both of whom were murdered in concentration camps during the Holocaust," said Lauder.

His spokesperson noted that Lauder "was the first person contacted by the D.A.'s Office who agreed to voluntarily restitute an artwork to the Grünbaum heirs."

Grünbaum's heirs have sought for decades to reclaim multiple Schiele works that Grünbaum had owned.

A New York civil case in 2018 found that the heirs had proven a right of possession of two Schieles, and an appellate court affirmed that ruling in 2019.