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Published on April 25, 2024
Art Institute of Chicago Clashes with New York Prosecutors Over Contested Egon Schiele Watercolor's ProvenanceSource: Google Street View

The ever-escalating legal drama between the Art Institute of Chicago and New York prosecutors over a contentious Egon Schiele watercolor rumbled on with the museum insisting on its clean claim to the artwork. While Manhattan's district attorney waves the red flag of Nazi looting, the Art Institute dug in its heels with a robust 132-page rebuttal on Tuesday. Each side is brandishing its own set of alleged facts and figures in this high-stakes art scuffle, where history and legality are intertwined like the twisted figures of a Schiele painting.

Despite accusations from New York prosecutors of exhibiting "willful blindness," the Art Institute threw the ball right back saying that the opposition's tale of theft is "factually unsupported and wrong," according to a detailed court filing obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times. They argue the 'Russian War Prisoner' piece was legally sold post-World War II by the performer Fritz Grünbaum's heirs - a narrative directly clawing at the "conspiracy of silence" story about forged documents and laundered artwork prosecutors pitched, but there's still a big, gaping hole where solid proof should be giving gravitas to the allegations, says the Institute.

Thrilling as a spy novel but grounded in the mundane real world of court documents and legal research, the museum's motion rebuffs the idea that Grünbaum's treasure ever saw the inside of a Nazi-controlled storage, as reported by the New York Times. Megan Michienzi, the Art Institute's executive director of public affairs, didn't mince words stating, "Our response provides specific details of the extensive evidence, documentation, and research that specifically refutes the allegations made by the Manhattan District Attorney." The museum stands by its claim that the watercolor was never pilfered, always legally tagging it as their own.

The Art Institute, however, is standing apart clutching 'Russian War Prisoner' tight, and staunchly defending its provenance while other institutions and collectors, involved in similar allegations regarding the Grünbaum Schiele stash, crumbled under the pressure, giving up their artworks to Grünbaum's heirs. Previous federal court cases went their way, yet a New York Supreme Court ruling in 2018 threw a wrench in the machinery, declaring that Grünbaum's works were effectively looted by the Nazis - now New York prosecutors are readying to duke it out in court once again.

Egon Schiele, the Austrian Expressionist in the middle of this legal tussle, renowned for his raw strokes and visceral sketches fell victim to the 'degenerate art' label by the Nazi regime, his works now the subject of a new-age battle that seems as multifaceted and provocative as his art. And as for the Art Institute of Chicago and the Manhattan DA's office, although they have yet to cross swords directly in a physical courtroom, the writing, as they say, is on the wall; they'll fight tooth and nail with every document, every exhibit 'A,' for every inch of their interpretation of law and history.