Wally came to New York for three months in 1997. A 1912 portrait by Egon
Schiele, Wally was detained in New York, and it has taken 13 years to reach a
legal agreement that will send her home to Vienna. The painting was seized in
January 1998, first by then Manhattan district attorney Robert Morgenthau, later
by federal prosecutors, at the end of a temporary exhibition lent by the
Austrian Leopold Museum to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New
Morgenthau took it because a family claimed that the painting had
been confiscated in 1939 by the Nazis from Lea Bondi Jaray, a Viennese Jewish
art dealer. That was the beginning of high drama in the international museum
community, and the beginning of global attention to claims for artworks that had
been looted from Jewish families in Europe during the Nazi era.
whose chairman was the Jewish philanthropist Ronald Lauder, fought the seizure.
The museum argued that it was obliged to return Wally under the terms of its
loan agreement with the Leopold. The Austrian museum argued that it legitimately
owned the painting.
The portrait had been acquired after World War II by
Dr. Rudolf Leopold, whose private collection of Expressionist art became the
foundation of the Austrian museum.
American prosecutors argued that Wally
was considered stolen property, had been imported to the New York museum in
violation of the National Stolen Property Act and must be forfeited.
drama ended July 20 when Preet Bharara, the US attorney in Manhattan, announced
a settlement with the Leopold Museum and Lea Bondi Jaray’s estate. Under the
deal, the museum will pay the estate some $19 million and, in exchange, keep the
oil painting, which depicts Schiele’s model and lover Valerie Neuzil, known as
Wally. (The value of the painting, because of the notoriety, has risen from an
estimated $2 million at the time it came to New York for the exhibition.) THE
SEIZURE of Wally had terrified the museum world, which thought that Jewish Nazi
victims might try to strip museum walls bare, and that foreign museums would be
afraid to lend artworks because of what Stephen W. Clark, then MoMA’s associate
general counsel, called “overreaching, overzealous prosecutors.”
neither scenario occurred, there was no shortage of drama following the claim
One of the early episodes came from an unexpected opponent of
Morgenthau’s seizure of the painting: the Jewish Museum of New York. Robert J.
Hurst, the museum chairman and son of a Holocaust survivor, wrote in The New
that “lenders virtually never have any awareness that their works of
art may have a tainted past.”
It is hard to feel much sympathy for
museums and collectors who cannot be troubled or trusted to learn whether their
coveted works have legal impediments.
Especially troubling was the
symbolism of the Jewish Museum’s position. When a preeminent Jewish institution
seemed more concerned with museums’ holdings than the rights of Nazi victims, it
undermined the moral argument that Jewish properties should be restored to their
legitimate prewar owners.
In September 1999, New York’s highest court
ruled that the Manhattan district attorney had overreached by detaining the
painting, and Wally was expected to return to Vienna. However, as soon as
Morgenthau was overruled by a state court, the federal government seized Wally
on grounds that it was stolen property.
In the federal district court in
New York, Judge Robert Mukasey issued a heart-stopping decision in 2000. He
freed Wally, arguing that the painting was no longer legally deemed “stolen”
property because the Allies had found it after the war and returned it to
Austria. Thus it was purged of the taint of theft. Such a sweeping decision
could have the effect of “cleansing” any Nazi-looted artwork that was located by
the Allies in Europe after the war, whether or not the original owner recovered
Mukasey allowed federal prosecutors to amend their case and
bolster their arguments – and two years later, the judge took a bold step and
reversed his prior ruling.
The artworks were, in effect, “unpurged” of
the taint of theft and again considered stolen because the task of the Allies
had been to locate looted artworks, not to return them to individual owners from
whom they were plundered.
Lea Bondi Jaray died in 1969, never abandoning
her claim for Wally. A federal trial was ordered in New York. The legal question
for the court was whether the Schiele was considered stolen and therefore
illegally brought into the US for the MoMA exhibition. The answer would rest on
the word of Rudolf Leopold, who had vehemently defended his ownership of the
Schiele. He died last month at the age of 85.
FROM THE first, Wally was a
special case. It elevated the issue of Nazi-looted art, which had been largely
dormant for decades. It profoundly altered the way in which the art world
reviews the history and provenance of individual artworks.
This has not
been especially helpful to the majority of claimants, but at least the museum
world and art trade have been sensitized to the issue.
significant is the manner in which this particular claim was handled. This was
not a dispute between a museum and a private individual. It was a criminal case
prosecuted by New York and federal officials. Museums can choose to ignore
individual claimants; they ignore prosecutors with subpoenas only at great
When the government stepped in (Morgenthau in Manhattan, then
federal prosecutors), it appeared that the government represented the claimants.
It did not, but their interests neatly coincided. The government wanted the
Leopold to forfeit a stolen painting – a specific painting sought by Lea Bondi
Jaray’s heirs. It was agreed that if the government won, Wally would go to the
The trial was to have begun Monday in federal court in Manhattan.
Instead, before her return to Austria under the terms of the settlement, Wally
will be on exhibit for several weeks, beginning Thursday at the Museum of Jewish
Heritage in New York. The museum’s chairman is Morgenthau, the retired district
attorney who sparked the international storm on Nazi-looted art by detaining the
“I didn’t view our involvement in the paintings as a Jewish
issue. It is a stolen-property issue. Possession of stolen property is a crime,”
he said in an interview with The Jerusalem Post
in 1998. It would have made no
difference if the case involved a Schiele or a 1930 Ford vehicle, he
In a statement announcing the settlement, the US attorney, Bharara,
said: “More than 70 years after ‘Portrait of Wally’ was stolen, today’s
settlement marks another small step toward justice for victims of property
crimes during World War II. Lea Bondi Jaray and her family were steadfast in
their long battle to restore their rightful ownership of ‘Portrait of Wally.’
Their determination provides hope for others who lost precious property and art
to Nazi theft.”
This is not quite true. The family of Lea Bondi Jaray was
in an enviably unique position. It had what other claimants do not: local and
federal prosecutors fighting for their rights. It must befuddle and frustrate
many claimants to learn that their cases will never warrant the rigorous
attention given to Wally.
Without the hard work and dedication of
Bharara’s office and US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the US attorney
said, “the true provenance of ‘Portrait of Wally’ would not have been uncovered
nor justice done after so many years.” He is correct.
The family would
not have prevailed without aggressive US government support over the last
decade. If the US is sincere about restoring Nazi victims’ assets to their
rightful owners, every legitimate claimant is entitled to the same degree of
sympathetic federal assistance as the family of Lea Bondi Jaray found.
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