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Artwork stolen by the Nazis from a Jewish cabaret star returned to his heirs

Works of art by Austrian expressionist artist Egon Schiele (AP)
Works of art by Austrian expressionist artist Egon Schiele (AP)

Artwork stolen by the Nazis from a Jewish cabaret star who openly derided Adolf Hitler and was later forced into a concentration camp has finally been returned to his heirs.

Seven pieces of art made by Austrian expressionist Egon Schiele that were looted from Fritz Grünbaum have been returned to his heirs more than 80 years after they were taken.

Valued collectively at $9.5m, the pieces of art were returned to Grünbaum’s family during a ceremony and press conference Wednesday in New York. The family had been fighting to reclaim the looted art.

Grünbaum, a popular Austrian cabaret performer and songwriter, had amassed a trove of almost 450 pieces of art before the Second World War began. This trove included 81 sketches and paintings by Schiele, a protege of Gustav Klimt.

Grünbaum’s routines openly derided Nazism and Hitler and were banned.

He was arrested in 1938 and imprisoned at Dachau concentration camp in southern Germany, according to the Holocaust research project Music and the Holocaust.

His wife Elisabeth was later forced to hand over her husband’s art collection. Grünbaum died in 1941 in Dachau – that has been a source of embarassment for several post-war German governments.

He died when his wife was in another concentration camp in Minsk, Belarus in 1942.

“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,” Manhattan district attorney Alvin Bragg said.

“We still have so much to learn from Fritz Grünbaum and these seven pieces that he found to be so beautiful.”

Timothy Reif, Grünbaum’s great-grandnephew and a federal judge in New York City, said about the state and federal authorities: “Your recovery of these artworks reminds us once again that history’s largest mass murder has long concealed history’s greatest robbery.”

The Nazis had stolen 50,000 works of art from 1933-45, mostly from Jewish families who were arrested and killed in concentration camps during the Holocaust. Some of the looted artworks included works of most artists, including van Gogh, Picasso and Chagall, according to some estimates.