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Reclaiming Stolen Art

Judge Timothy Reif, a judge on the US. Court of International Trade and an NCS parent, joined Dr. Ben Labaree’s World at War class to discuss the recent return of paintings stolen from his family by the Nazis.

“At its height, theft of property by Nazis from Jews counted for almost ten percent of the budget of the Third Reich,” said Reif. “The greatest mass murder of all times has overshadowed the greatest robbery of all time.”

Born in Czechoslovakia and living in Vienna prior to the war, Reif’s great-uncle, Fritz Grünbaum, was a movie director, art collector, song writer, and cabaret artist. Grünbaum, according to Reif, “wrote and performed derisively anti-Socialist skits” and was deemed an “enemy of the state.” (Reif noted that the Joel Grey character in the musical Cabaret is said to be based on him.) In 1938 Grünbaum was sent to Dachau Concentration, where he would be murdered in 1941, at age 61. While Grünbaum was interned in concentration camps, his wife was forced to provide Nazis with an inventory of their art collection, which included eighty-one works by Austrian Expressionist Egon Schiele.

The paintings were later scattered among collections, and from the 1950s to the early 1990s the family strived to track them down. In 1997, one of the paintings appeared on exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art and the family began working with then-Manhattan district attorney Robert Morgenthau to have them returned. In 2019 a New York Court ruled in favor of Grunbaum’s family, and last year the New York Court of Appeals upheld that decision. “We reject the notion that a person who signs a power of attorney in a death camp can be said to have executed the document voluntarily,” wrote Justice Anil Singh.

This September seven works by Schiele were turned over to the descendants of Grünbaum.
The family established the Grünbaum Fisher Foundation, which will use proceeds from the paintings’ sale to support young underrepresented performing artists. “I feel fortunate,” said Reif, “to be able to do something.”

Located in Washington D.C.,  St. Albans School is a private, all boys day and boarding school. For more than a century, St. Albans has offered a distinctive educational experience for young men in grades 4 through 12. While our students reach exceptional academic goals and exhibit first-rate athletic and artistic achievements, as an Episcopal school we place equal emphasis upon moral and spiritual education.