Nazi Art Disputes Still Kicking 80 Years Later (NY)
In 2015, a suit known as Reif v. Nagy was filed in the Manhattan Supreme Court Commercial Division over the rightful ownership of two Egon Schiele paintings that were allegedly stolen by the Nazis. The suit commenced after the two paintings were spotted at a 2015 art show exhibit run by Richard Nagy, a London-based art dealer. The plaintiffs included the heirs of Fritz Grünbaum, a Jewish entertainer who once owned the subject paintings and later died inside a Nazi concentration camp.
A 2018 summary judgment decision concluded that the plaintiffs were the rightful owners to the paintings, reasoning that a signature at Nazi gunpoint by Grünbaum to sign over his art collection was not a valid conveyance. Subsequently in 2019, the Appellate Division, First Department affirmed the decision. In a recent decision, the Court of Appeals rejected Nagy’s request to hear his appeal on the merits, effectively ending the seven-year litigation.
However, a 2011 decision issued by the U.S. District Court of the Southern District of New York reached a different conclusion in Bakalar v. Vavra, a provenance case that involved part of the same Grünbaum collection. The Bakalar Court found the subject artwork was never appropriated by the Nazis, however, based on the doctrine of laches, the possessor of the artwork was the rightful owner, not Grünbaum’s heirs.
As such, two courts reached different conclusions as to whether the Nazis ever appropriated any artwork. Concerns that parties may engage in forum shopping have arisen, given the likelihood of more litigation as other artworks exist from Grünbaum’s collection. In any event, the provenance behind these artworks remain a mystery.
Thanks to Gina Rodriguez for her contribution to this article. Should you have any questions, please contact Matthew Care.