(photo credit: Egon Schiele)
NEW YORK – The 1912 “Portrait of Wally” oil painting by Egon Schiele was unveiled in the Museum of Jewish Heritage Thursday, marking the conclusion of 13 years of legal wrangling and international dispute over the painting and Holocaust art restitution.
The painting, stolen from Jewish art dealer Lea Bondi Jaray by a Nazi agent in the 1930s, has had a storied journey to the wall of New York’s Holocaust museum. The three-week exhibit here signifies the resolution of a legal battle that began with “Portrait of Wally”’s trip to New York for a Schiele exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in 1997.
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Andre Bondi, a representative of the Bondi Jaray estate, said he’d had no idea that a letter to MoMA questioning the provenance of the painting would lead to such “enormous repercussions,” both in terms of the painting and art restitution legislation in the United States.
In 1997, the painting was loaned to MoMA by the Leopold Museum in Vienna as part of a Schiele exhibit. But in 1999, the US government commenced a civil forfeiture action in New York against the Leopold Museum, claiming that the painting had been stolen from the Jewish art dealer during the Nazi era, and had been imported into the US in violation of American law.
Upon the painting’s forfeiture, the US government asserted, all rights to the painting should go to the Bondi Jaray estate.
In 2009, the federal district court ruled that the painting had, in fact, been stolen from Bondi Jaray by Nazi Friedrich Welz. In 1947, however, the painting was seized by American forces in Austria and was turned over to the Austrian Federal Office for Preservation of Historical Monuments, or Bundesdenkmalamt. The portrait was turned over along with paintings Welz had acquired from Dr. Heinrich Rieger, a Jewish art collector who had perished during the Holocaust.
In 1950, the Bundesdenkmalamt delivered artworks to an agent for the Rieger heirs and erroneously included the “Portrait of Wally” in the delivery. Later that year, the Rieger heirs sold their works, and the portrait, to the Austrian National Gallery, also known as the Belvedere. In 1954, the museum traded the painting to Austrian Rudolf Leopold, who subsequently transferred it to the Leopold Museum in 1994.
The case reached resolution in 2010 with a settlement between the Bondi Jaray estate, the US government and the Leopold Museum. The Leopold Museum paid the Bondi Jaray estate $19 million, and in exchange the Bondi Jaray estate released its claim to the painting. The US government dismissed the civil forfeiture action and released the painting to the Leopold Museum.
As part of the settlement, before the painting’s return to Austria, the painting will be displayed at the Museum of Jewish Heritage until mid-August. Its display in New York, Austria and anywhere else it is exhibited will always be accompanied by a placard explaining its complicated history.
The Bondi Jaray estate chose the Museum of Jewish Heritage to host the painting in New York, rather than an art museum, because it was “a setting that would memorialize the suffering of so many in the Holocaust and the resilience and resolve of those who escaped and/or survived.”
Many people, former Manhattan district attorney Robert M. Morgenthau noted in his remarks at the unveiling ceremony, had feared the resolution of the “Portrait of Wally” case, anticipating that it would lead to a chilling effect on traveling art exhibits internationally. Morgenthau contended that the resolution of this case demonstrated the baselessness of those fears.
“Schiele focused necessary attention on a fundamental injustice of great
gravity and scale,” Morgenthau said, adding that he hoped the “Portrait
of Wally” case would serve as a precedent for “the thousands of claims
that as yet are unresolved.”
As people crowded around the painting to examine its brushstrokes and to
read the accompanying placard’s text, the museum’s director, David
Marwell, was visibly moved.
“Seeing that painting is just so powerful,” Marwell told The Jerusalem Post
“It’s a very emotional experience for the family, and it’s a powerful
symbol – both of the massive theft perpetrated during the Holocaust, and
of the possibility of some justice, even belated.”