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May 28, 2012

Monday, May 28, 2012 - , No comments

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

Egon Schiele's 1912 "Portrait of Wally"/Leopold Museum
by Catherine Sezgin, ARCA Blog Editor-in-Chief

A Nazi stole Egon Schiele’s Portrait of Wally from the Vienna residence of Jewish art dealer Lea Bondi Jaray in 1939. For three decades, until her death in 1969, Mrs. Jaray wanted to recover her painting, even soliciting help from Dr. Rudolf Leopold, another Schiele expert and art collector who frequented her art gallery in London.

What Lea Bondi did not know was that Dr. Leopold had found her painting at the Belvedere amongst the works of the Austrian National Gallery.  The picture was mislabeled as "Portrait of a Woman" and identified as part of the collection of Dr. Heinrich Reiger, who had died in the Holocaust.  In the 1960s, Dr. Leopold traded another Schiele painting for the "Portrait of Wally" but instead of returning it to Bondi, he kept the stolen artwork for himself for more than three decades.

In 1997, Portrait of Wally was part of an Egon Schiele exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York where Lea Bondi’s relatives recognized her painting.  Her nephew, Henry Bondi, requested that the museum return the stolen picture to the family. When the museum denied the request, Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau issued a subpoena to seize the painting before it could be shipped back to the Leopold Museum in Austria.

The dramatic 70-year-old battle to recover this painting is documented in the 90-minute film "Portrait of Wally" directed by Andrew Shea and produced by P. O. W. Productions.  This documentary uses film footage of Nazis in Austria and numerous interviews with the lawyers, journalists and art collectors involved to explain an important legal case regarding the “last prisoners of World War II” (as described by Ronald Lauder, then Chairman of MoMA).

Egon Schiele (1890-1918) painted "Portrait of Wally Neuzil" in 1912 with oil paint on a wood panel measuring 32 by 39 centimeters.  This picture stayed in storage in the United States for 13 years while lawyers for MoMA and the Leopold Museum fought restitution to the Estate of Lea Bondi.

In this insightful documentary, Morgenthau discusses why he issued the subpoena:
We heard about the allegations of the owner of the Schiele paintings.  It was the 11th hour, and they were about to return them to Austria so we kind of threw a Hail Mary pass.  We issued a grand jury subpoena hoping we could develop the evidence to support that case, but if we hadn’t issued it, the painting would have gone back and we would have never had a chance to ascertain the true ownership.
Willi Korte, Art Researcher and Investigator, Co-Founder, Holocaust Art Restitution Project, on the importance of the case:  “We wouldn’t be sitting here talking about art restitution in 2010 the way we do if we wouldn’t have had Wally and I can’t think of any other case that had this significance. It is the case out of all art restitution cases that really shaped the discussion for the following years.”

CBS News Correspondent Morley Safer, was also on camera: “These are vestiges of people’s history, of the family’s history and it is terribly important I think that that be honored … there should be a rush to judgment on these cases.”

Judith H. Debrzynski, formerly an arts reporter for The New York Times, recalled that in late 1997 people were talking about Dr. Leopold as an excessive art collector who reputedly personally conducted extensive conservation on the artworks at the Leopold Museum.  Then someone mentioned to her about “the Nazi connection” in regards to the Schiele exhibit at MoMA and Debrzynski got curious. This film clearly defines the history and legal complications of this case in a fascinating narrative. [In this post and the subsequent posts this week, information on this case is all from the documentary.]

In 1920s Vienna, Lea Bondi operated a modern art gallery.  She brought, sold, and displayed works by the young Schiele at a time of freedom and experimentation in Austria.  In the second half of the 19th century, the Emperor Franz Josef had given Jews the same rights as citizens. Vienna’s Jewish population had increased from 6,000 in 1848 to at least 200,000 in Austria by 1930.  Vienna of the 1920s was like Berlin, very open to modern ideas and thought and sexual morals were as loose as they are in New York now, Thomas Weyr, journalist and native of Vienna, tells the camera.  “Everything changed overnight,” Weyr said.

In March 1938, the mostly Roman Catholic Austrians voted to join Germany in the "Anschluss".  Hitler paraded under Nazi banners draped over the balconies of apartment buildings in the main streets of Vienna while Jews lost their right to vote and their businesses.

“Lea said it was a time when if you belonged to the right party, you could do what you wanted, never mind if it was legal or not,” recalled her grand niece Ruth Rozanek in the understated manner she maintains before the camera throughout the documentary.

Lea Bondi owned a gallery in Vienna that was quite well known, according to Lucille Roussin, an attorney and art historian.  “However, this painting, Portrait of Wally by Egon Schiele, was not part of the contents of that gallery," Roussin said.  "It was her personal property.”

Henry Bondi, Lea Bondi’s Nephew, said that after the Anschluss, everything was confiscated from his aunt because she was Jewish.

In other supporting documentation, Lea Bondi had written to Otto Kallir, founder of Galerie St. Etienne in NYC, that Portrait of Wally had been in her private collection “privatbesitz” and had nothing to do with her gallery.  It had hung in her apartment at 38 Weisgerberlände.

Journalist D’Arcy retold the background of the story: Friedrich Welz, an art dealer and Nazi Party member, confiscated Lea Bondi’s gallery.  Then he went to her home, saw the painting on the wall, and said he wanted Portrait of Wally too.  Welz threatened Bondi; her husband told her to give it to Welz, that they might want to leave as soon as tomorrow. Welz took the painting and Lea Bondi left Vienna for London the next day (18 March 1939).

Hildegard Bachert, co-director of Galerie St. Etienne in New York City recalled the political atmosphere in Vienna: “Their lives were in the balance there.  There wasn’t any negotiating and God knows I know that you couldn’t negotiate with Nazis.  You were lucky if they didn’t shoot you on the spot.”

Part two continued in two days.