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Art looted by Nazis finds its rightful owners

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Seven works of art stolen by Nazis have been voluntarily returned to their rightful heirs today in New York. The works were by celebrated Austrian artist Egon Schiele, and they were given back by various museums and private collectors. NPR's Jasmine Garsd has more.

JASMINE GARSD, BYLINE: Egon Schiele was known for his fluid lines, erotic subjects and bursts of color. He's also become a symbol of artwork stolen by the Nazi regime. The original owner of the Schiele pieces was Fritz Grunbaum, a cabaret artist who was outspoken against the Nazis. Grunbaum was sent to the Dachau concentration camp in 1941. Prosecutors say while imprisoned, he was forced to give power of attorney to his wife, Elisabeth. She was later coerced into handing over his art collection to Nazi officials before being sent to a death camp. Both the Grunbaums died in concentration camps. At the press conference held today by the Manhattan District Attorney's office, heir Timothy Reif had a request.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TIMOTHY REIF: When viewing these artworks, imagine Fritz and Elisabeth in their lively Vienna apartment singing and dancing and cracking jokes. Remembering their lives defeats Hitler's plan.

GARSD: It wasn't until the 1950s that several Schiele pieces resurfaced. They were in possession of a Swiss dealer who sold them to an American dealer. He sold them to several buyers. The works being returned have been valued at as much as 2.75 million apiece. Despite today's ceremony, there are still several Schiele works whose ownership is being contested. In fact, the Manhattan District Attorney's Office recently issued warrants to the Art Institute of Chicago, the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh and the Allen Memorial Art Museum of Oberlin College. All three institutions say they acquired their Egon Schiele work legally. But the heirs say, ultimately, that's stolen property. At least one of the Grunbaum heirs has said they'd like to see this influence other art theft cases. Attorney Jennifer Kreder has worked on art theft cases. She says...

JENNIFER KREDER: I do think we can expect to see more antiquities being returned. Legally, whether those claims would succeed is not consistent across all objects because the situation in which they left the country or were dug out of the ground and - you know, it's very different from place to place.

GARSD: But she says today's announcement establishes an important precedent.

Jasmine Garsd, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Jasmine Garsd is an Argentine-American journalist living in New York. She is currently NPR's Criminal Justice correspondent and the host of The Last Cup. She started her career as the co-host of Alt.Latino, an NPR show about Latin music. Throughout her reporting career she's focused extensively on women's issues and immigrant communities in America. She's currently writing a book of stories about women she's met throughout her travels.