The fight to reclaim artworks stolen by the Nazis is pitting the granddaughter of a Holocaust victim against her father’s estate and its main beneficiary, a mental health clinic.
At issue are the paintings that belonged to the late Heinrich Rieger, a dentist who lived in Vienna before World War II and bartered with patients who could not afford to pay in cash. The painter Egon Schiele, for example, paid with original artworks.
When the Nazis seized Rieger’s collection in 1938, he had amassed about 800 works that were primarily by Austrian Expressionists, including Schiele.
Rieger and his wife, Berta, both died in Nazi death camps.
Some of Rieger’s paintings surfaced recently in auction houses, while others were uncovered as museums conducted provenance research on artworks acquired between 1933 and 1945. In February, a provincial museum in Graz announced that a Schiele painting, “Hafen von Triest” (“Trieste Harbor”), would be returned: It was one of seven pieces from Rieger’s collection that were approved for restitution in Austria in the past few years. But rather than resolve a historical injustice, the return of the paintings is triggering questions about how to divvy up recovered artworks between competing heirs.
“This is one of the problems of restitution 60 years later,” said Franz-Stefan Meissel, legal historian at the University of Vienna and an authority on Austrian restitution. Family situations have changed dramatically, and there are conflicts between heirs, Meissel said.
In this case, one of Rieger’s granddaughters, Eva Glassman, is insisting that she receive any of the paintings awarded to her side of the family. But, instead, government and private lawyers in Austria have handed over the artworks to the estate of her father, Heinrich’s son, Robert.
Along with his wife, Rose, and their daughter, Eva, Rieger managed to flee to France after the Anschluss, eventually arriving in New York in 1939. When Robert Rieger died in New York in 1985, he and Glassman were estranged. In his will, Rieger left his daughter household goods and his personal effects, including paintings, in his Manhattan apartment on Central Park West. But he deliberately made no other provisions for her, “because of the longstanding estrangement between us.” A major beneficiary of the estate was New York’s Postgraduate Center for Mental Health, in memory of Rieger’s wife, who had been a psychiatrist at the facility.
Glassman contends that while her father cut her out of a financial share of his estate, he never intended for family artworks to be given to an institution rather than a blood heir.
“These belong to my grandfather’s grandchildren, not to some clinic that doesn’t know who Heinrich Rieger was,” Glassman said. “My grandparents’ house was covered wall to wall, including the toilets, with Schieles, Klimts, drawings, pictures, paintings.
“My girlfriends loved it, because they had never seen such erotic paintings. It was an eye-opener.”
Robert Rieger and Heinrich Rieger’s son-in-law recovered some of the artworks after the Holocaust. But hundreds are still missing. “For the last 40 years, we didn’t know the pictures would come up,” Glassman said. “They were gone, and that was the end of it.”
Now, with the recent spate of discoveries, the question of ownership has taken on renewed importance.
The lawyer representing Robert Rieger’s trust, who declined to be identified, told the Forward that the mental health clinic is the beneficiary. “I personally don’t care if the Postgraduate Center wanted to give Eva Glassman some money,” the lawyer said. However, he added, “I sit here in an in-between position. As far as I am concerned, I am working for the Postgraduate Center.”
The center has assets of $17 million and revenue of $28 million.
The center’s CEO and president, Jacob Barak, declined to answer questions, saying the trust’s lawyer is “the guy in charge.”
Lucille Roussin, a legal consultant for Glassman, argued that the recently recovered artworks would have been among Robert Rieger’s effects that, had they not been plundered by the Nazis, would have been left to Glassman when he died.
“Eva Glassman, as the beneficiary of the bequest of any household furniture, furnishings and personal effects, has a legitimate claim to any works of art from the Heinrich Rieger collection located now or in the future,” Roussin said.
The Rieger paintings recovered thus far are early works of various artists, and not very valuable. But more are expected to be uncovered, because museums and auction houses have become sensitive to Jewish losses to Nazi looting and because the Israelitische Kultusgemeinde, the official Jewish community of Vienna, is pursuing Rieger works on behalf of Heinrich Rieger’s other granddaughter, who lives in Holland.