Ronald Lauder to return art looted by Nazis to collector heirs

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Ronald Lauder, heir to the Estee Lauder cosmetics fortune and president of the World Jewish Congress, is seen on Sept. 21, 2022.

Michael Kappeler | Picture Alliance | Getty Images

The billionaire Ronald Lauder has agreed to return a piece of art looted by Nazis from a collector who was later killed in a concentration camp.

Lauder will transfer Austrian expressionist Egon Schiele’s 1912 color drawing “I Love Antithesis” to the Manhattan District Attorney’s office. The piece is worth $2.75 million, according to the D.A.’s office.

Lauder is one of several art collectors and entities who are voluntarily returning seven Schiele artworks to the heirs of Fritz Grunbaum, a Jewish cabaret performer from Austria, through the D.A.’s office.

The combined value of those seven works is over $9.5 million, the prosecutor’s office said.

Lauder, the heir to the Estee Lauder cosmetics fortune and a Republican megadonor, also is the president of the World Jewish Congress.

Grunbaum acquired a collection of 81 Schiele works before he was arrested in Austria in 1938 by the Nazis. He was murdered at the Dachau concentration camp in Germany in 1941.

Lauder acquired the artwork “through an art dealer decades after it was misappropriated” by the Nazis, his spokesperson said.

In a statement, Lauder said, “I am pleased and honored to be able to help Fritz Grünbaum’s heirs continue their laudable efforts to recover his legacy.”

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“I hope that this restitution process brings healing to the Grunbaum family and helps to keep alive the memory of Mr. Grunbaum and his wife Elisabeth, both of whom were murdered in concentration camps during the Holocaust,” said Lauder.

His spokesperson said, “We understand that Mr. Lauder was the first person contacted by the D.A.’s Office who agreed to voluntarily restitute an artwork to the Grunbaum heirs.”

An avid art collector, Lauder co-founded the Neue Galerie in New York, which displays a range of art from Austria and Germany between 1890 and 1940 — including numerous works by Schiele.

The seven artworks being returned had been held by two New York museums, the Museum of Modern Art and the Morgan Library & Museum, and the Santa Barbara Museum of Art in California, along with Lauder and the estate of art collector Serge Sabarsky.

A longtime acquaintance of former President Donald Trump, Lauder gave almost $100,000 to the Republican National Committee in 2019 as it was working to reelect the then-Republican incumbent.

Lauder’s spokesman previously told CNBC he would not back Trump’s 2024 presidential campaign.

Grünbaum’s heirs have sought for decades to reclaim multiple Schiele works that he had owned.

A New York civil case in 2018 found that the heirs had proven a right of possession of two Schieles, and an appellate court affirmed that ruling in 2019.

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