May 30, 2012

Art Crime Documentary: "Portrait of Wally" (Part Two)

Rudolf Leopold/The Leopold Museum
by Catherine Sezgin, ARCA Blog Editor


This is a continued review of the art crime documentary "Portrait of Wally". The information presented here is from the film directed by Andrew Shea.

Lea Bondi founded St. George’s Gallery in London.  After the war, Bondi spent several years recovering her paintings and was able to get back the ones from her gallery but not those that had hung in her apartment, recalled her nephew Henry Bondi.

In 1946, Bondi returned to Vienna.  She went to the Restitution Court, not for the Portrait of Wally, but for the contents of her gallery that was now called “Galerie Friedrich Welz”.  The Austrian court declared that Welz had renovated the gallery and that Bondi would have to pay the war criminal Welz 9,000 Schillings before recovering her business.


Director Andrew Shea's documentary discusses the confusion about the Egon Schiele painting Portrait of Wally after World War II.

Sophie Lillie, author of Was Einmal War (What Once Was), said that Bondi asked Welz about the Portrait of Wally.  Welz told Bondi that the painting had been erroneously confiscated with the property of another Jewish collector, Dr. Heinrich Rieger, and given to the national collection at the Belvedere Museum. The Rieger family had been rounded up and deported to die in a concentration camp, Lillie said in the documentary.

Portrait of Wally was listed incorrectly as a “drawing” not as an oil painting. “The mistake should have been recognized immediately,” Lillie said.  “Mistaking a painting for a drawing is a big mistake.”

“The idea that the director of the National Gallery of Austria was unable to tell the difference between an oil painting and a work on paper is clearly an absurdity,” journalist David D’Arcy told the camera.

Thomas Trenkler, Editor of Der Standard, sums up that the Belvedere Museum “knew that the painting they had bought didn’t belong to Rieger and that something was not quite right”.

Klaus Schröder, former Managing Director of The Leopold Museum, said: “But to imply that the Austrian Gallery would have tampered with the sources to facilitate possible sales is totally absurd.”

Monika Mayer, Director of Provenance Research, Austrian Gallery at the Belvedere:  “Of course, to us it seems quite exceptional if we look at it retrospectively.  How can there be a confusion between a drawing an a painting from a famous collector, Heinrich Rieger, and a famous collector, Heinrich Rieger, and a famous oil portrait of Wally Neuzil? That seems extremely mysterious and we can’t explain it.  I didn’t go as deeply into the details of the case as others have. I don’t actually think there was a conspiracy.”

Bonnie Goldblatt, former Senior Special Agent for Department of Homeland Security, who had worked on the case said in the documentary: “My belief is that the museum wanted to amass a huge art collection and it was good timing.  A law had been passed then that forbid the exportation of work by Austrian artists, which came in handy.  If Jewish collectors weren’t in Austria, they would have to sell it to the museum instead of taking it out of the country to sell.”

Even the U. S. Army had documented numerous times that the painting had not belonged to the Riegers and told the Belvedere the same thing, asserted Sharon Cohen Levin, Chief of the Asset Forfeiture United in the United States Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York.

In a deposition in Vienna with American prosecutors, Dr. Rudolf Leopold spoke of his relationship with Lea Bondi:  ‘I met Ms. Jaray in London in 1953.  She sold me a few Schiele pieces and explained to me that she would like to talk to me about a picture that she had once owned.’

Ernst Ploil, attorney and art collector, explained in the documentary:  “Leopold knew who owned looted art.  He knew about the problems of not being able to export those pieces of art.  He got in contact with the owners who had left Austria or had been forced to leave Austria” and offered to purchase the recovered looted art.

Hector Felicano, author of The Lost Museum: “Right after the war there was such turmoil in the art market that you could get just about anything you wanted if you had the money.”

In 1954, Lea Bondi asked Leopold to watch over the Portrait of Wally, to make sure it didn’t disappear, according to Robert Morganthau.

Again, the film returns to Leopold’s deposition in United States v. Portrait of Wally: “The question is, what did she say to you, and what did you say to her?”
Leopold: “Well, I already explained this before.  After we had struck a deal regarding a couple of sheets, works on paper, that is, she asked me, where is the Portrait of Wally? And I said in the Belvedere.” 
Leopold: “Well, what you’re asking me – and I then said, well, what you’re asking me to do is simply impossible to do, because if I just went to the Gallery and asked them to hand me over the picture, they will probably throw me out.”
Journalist D’Arcy narrates what happened next: ‘Leopold returns to Vienna and barters with the museum for a Schiele he has for this painting.  He already had Egon Schiele’s self-portrait of the same date so for him it was a case of uniting the pair of pictures’.

The Austrian Gallery had exchanged “Vally from Krumau” for “Portrait of a boy (Rainerbub)”.

The next thing Lea Bondi knew, according to art historian Lucille Roussin, the painting was being exhibited as part of the Leopold collection.

Thomas Trenkler, Editor for Der Standard: “The museum must have been afraid that the painting would have to be given back. Thus, that the Museum sold it, or rather exchanged it for other artworks, this was a white wash.”

This review will be continued in two days.

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