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June 1, 2012

Friday, June 01, 2012 - , No comments

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

by Catherine Sezgin, ARCA Blog Editor-in-Chief

Lea Bondi’s grand niece, Ruth Rozanek, told the filmmakers of “Portrait of Wally” that Lea Bondi would have liked to have gotten her portrait back but that in the 1950s Bondi didn’t have the financial resources for a legal fight and the value of the painting – barely worth $1,000 then – couldn’t justify a costly legal battle in a country where she could not be sure to be given fair consideration as a Jew after the war in Austria.  Lea Bondi died in 1969.  In 1972, Rudolf Leopold published a book on Schiele and obliterated Lea Bondi’s name from the list of owners of Portrait of Wally.

Director Andrew Shea’s film “Portrait of Wally” documents the legal strategies of the state of New York who wanted to establish the true ownership of the painting against the museums and art galleries who expressed their opinion and strong influence against what they considered the government’s interference.

The Museum of Modern Art, chaired by Ronald Lauder, wanted to return Portrait of Wally (and a second painting by Egon Schiele Dead City) to the Leopold Museum.  MoMA moved to quash the subpoena.  The art community had assumed that artworks were usually immune from such actions, the New York Times reported.  The Wall Street Journal said that Morgenthau had taken ‘momentary leave of his senses’.

Museums feared their ability to borrower paintings internationally would be hurt.  “Museums and the public could be severely damaged as a consequence,” Philippe de Montebello, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, told the New York Times.

Glenn D. Lowry, Executive Director, Museum of Modern Art., before the House Banking Committee on February 12, 1998: “The district attorney’s action of barring the return of the painting to the lender has the potential of seriously affecting the future of art loans in this country. Unless we can assure lenders that American art museums will return borrowed works of art, lenders, fearing seizures, will simply not lend.  That would be a disaster for the American public which has come to expect first class exhibitions at all art institutions across this great land.”

Ori Z. Soltes, Former Director, National Jewish Museum, Co-Founder, Holocaust Art Restitution Project: “Then the entire museum community fell in line with this perspective of don’t mess with internal museum affairs, you government and other kinds of bureaucrats because you don’t understand.”

Even Ronald Lauder, who founded the Commission on Art Recovery in 1998, wanted the painting returned to Austria.  The filmmakers discuss Lauder's various conflicts as an underwriter of the Schiele exhibition at MoMA and as former US Ambassador to Austria in 1986-1987.  Launder, a major collector of Egon Schiele’s works, also purchased Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer from Maria Altmann and her family in 2006.

This documentary discusses the controversial NPR story in 2004 on Portrait of Wally and the subsequent suspension of correspondent David D’Arcy (also co-writer of this film).

Attorneys Howard Spiegler and Larry Kaye fought for years on behalf of the Estate of Lea Bondi.  Finally, a trial date was set for July 2010.  All that was to be decided, the film said, was whether or not Leopold knew that “Portrait of Wally” had been stolen when he brought the painting into the United States for the Schiele exhibition at MoMA in 1997.

Then Dr. Leopold died weeks before the trial.  His wife, Dr. Elisabeth Leopold, offered the Estate of Lea Bondi $19 million for Portrait of Wally to return to the Leopold Museum in Vienna, to join the artist’s self-portrait painted on the same day he had immortalized his lover.  It was her husband’s wish to settle, Elisabeth Leopold said publicly.  The attorneys, who had taken the case on contingency received about one-third of the money for the painting and the rest was divided amongst the 50 family members of the Estate of Lea Bondi.

The painting was first displayed at the Jewish Heritage Museum in lower Manhattan before it was returned to Vienna and re-installed at the Leopold Museum.  This time, the story of Lea Bondi’s ownership of the Portrait of Wally is confirmed and it is clarified that she never lost title to the painting during the decades she and her family searched for the stolen painting.

The film notes at the end:
Shortly after painting Portrait of Wally Schiele left Wally for a respectable middle-class girl, Edith Harms, whom he married in 1915.  Schiele never saw Wally again. Edith died of influenza in 1918. She was six months pregnant with Schiele’s child. Schiele contracted the virus and died three days later at the age of 28. Wally volunteered to serve as a nurse.  She died of scarlet fever during World War One. 
 In 1998, the Austrian Parliament, responding to the Manhattan District Attorney’s seizure of Portrait of Wally and Dead City, passed a new restitution law. 
 In the following years the Belvedere and other Austrian museums returned hundreds of millions of dollars worth of art that had been stolen by the Nazis. 
 This restitution law does not apply to the Leopold Museum, which is considered a private foundation, not a public museum.
Directed by Andrew Shea
Written by Andrew Shea and David D’Arcy
Produced by David D’Arcy, Barbara Morgan, and Andrew Shea

This project was funded and supported in part by the City of Austin through the Cultural Arts Division and by a grant from the Texas Commission on the Arts.