Art law USA

What makes the Portrait of Wally case so significant?

It was the initiative taken by the US government that made all the difference [in the Portrait of Wally case], signalling that it would expend national resources to seek justice

The Portrait of Wally documentary is at the Tribeca Film Festival

If true art aims to change the world, perhaps no picture has proven as successful lately as Egon Schiele’s 1912 tender, traditional portrait of his mistress, Wally Neuzil. Far less graphic and edgy than the works that made Schiele’s reputation, the painting is nevertheless destined for iconhood because of its history as Nazi loot and the 13-year legal battle waged for it, which was finally resolved in a 2010 settlement between the estate of Lea Bondi Jaray, the US government and the Leopold Museum in Vienna. Now the subject of a documentary called “Portrait of Wally,” which is due to premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York on 28 April, the case and the painting are headed for more attention.

There have been plenty of restitution claims, before and after, involving better works and more money. But early on in “Portrait of Wally”, Willi Korte, an independent researcher who co-founded the Holocaust Art Restitution Project, rightly says, “I can’t think of any other case that had this effect, this significance. It is the case, out of all art restitution cases that I can think of, that really shaped the discussion for the following years.”

Why?

I was present at the start, at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) on 8 October 1997, for the opening of “Egon Schiele: The Leopold Collection, Vienna,” which included Wally. There, Jane Kallir, the director of Galerie St Etienne, who knew the painting’s story, whispered the words “Nazi connection” in my ear, and as she says in the film, “That was the beginning of events that I think none of us in our wildest dreams could have anticipated at that moment.” I went on to report and write about Rudolf Leopold, and his many questionable collecting and conservation tactics, in a catalytic article published in The New York Times on 24 December 1997.

Before long, Bondi’s heirs had petitioned MoMA, to no avail, and gone to the government for help. When a subpoena from the Manhattan District Attorney to keep the painting in the US failed in New York State court, the US Customs Service seized Wally as stolen property that had been imported in violation of federal law, and the US government filed an action to retrieve the painting permanently on behalf of the heirs.

The revelations about Leopold and Wally caused an uproar in Austria, and by the fall of 1998, the Austrian government had passed a new restitution law, admitting that it was prompted because of Wally. But it was the initiative taken by the US government that made all the difference, signalling that it would expend national resources to seek justice in such cases.

A few additional elements made the case possible. For one, the government could never have acted if the painting had not already been in America—and that has simply not been true in other restitution claims. For another, the case quickly became a cause celebre for the media, with interest moving beyond the Times to radio, television and the print press in the US and—this is key—in Austria. Yes, some media outlets in Austria took Leopold’s side, but others subjected him to tough scrutiny. Meanwhile, MoMA, which actively opposed the government’s actions on behalf of the Bondis, was joined by a raft of American museums that placed their ability to borrow art from abroad above finding out who actually owned Wally.

In my original 1997 article—“The Zealous Collector: A Singular Passion For Amassing Art, One Way or Another”—Glenn D. Lowry, the director of MoMA, warned, “one must be very careful about applying the standards of today to things that happened in the past.” Fair enough, sometimes. But not, now, when it comes to Nazi-looted art.

Portrait of Wally is screening during the Tribeca Film Festival on Saturday 28 April at the SVA Theater and on Sunday 29 April at AMC Loews Village 7

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Comments

1 May 12
16:11 CET

JUDITH DOBRZYNSKI, NEW YORK

Let me also quote from a paper given by Gert-Jan van den Bergh, Dutch lawyer, speaking at a restitution seminar about the 1998 law and posted on LootedArt.com: "In December 1997 an article in the New York Times led to the seizure of two paintings by Egon Schiele that had been loaned to the MoMa in New York by the Leopold Museum in Vienna. Elisabeth Gehrer, then Austrian’s minister of Culture opposed the seizure and stated that there were no looted paintings in Austria. Because of huge public attention research was conducted in federal museums all across Austria during a 4 year period leading to 49 volumes of research reports. It turned out that the Austrian Museums harboured hundreds of artworks belonging to holocaust victims."

1 May 12
16:11 CET

JUDITH DOBRZYNSKI, NEW YORK

I agree with Jane Kallir, in that many people are responsible for the ultimate outcome in the Wally case. But let me explain the chain of events further. As I note in this short article, the Austrian press was key -- that includes first and foremost Hubertus Czernin. Here is a quote from "Holocaust Restitution" (ed: MJBazeler): "In response [to my articles and the subpoena] ...Gehrer ...declared that there were no looted paintings in Austria. ...Czernin...set out to prove her wrong." That is when he wrote his series of articles. It all hinged on what happened in the U.S., as Elisabeth Gehrer herself told me in an interview in NYC in fall, 1998.

27 Apr 12
19:4 CET

JANE KALLIR, NEW YORK

It is interesting that everyone involved in "Portrait of Wally" thinks the story revolves around them. In fact, it was a cavalcade of events that culminated in Judy's NY Times article, which in turn led to the legal actions that followed, both in NY and in Austria. The Galerie St. Etienne's "Bondi file" was and remained key to documenting the painting's theft. I had tried since the early 1908s to interest journalists in the story, and in the early 1990s I endeavored to help the British branch of the Bondi family bring suit in Austria--all to no avail. By the late 1990s, the climate had shifted decisively. Everyone who contributed to the "Wally" case deserves credit. None of us could have done it alone.

27 Apr 12
15:13 CET

KARL E. MEYER , NEW YORK

In Dobrzynski's Wikipedia entry (presumably at least vetted by herself), JD asserts that it was her NYT’s articles that persuaded the Austrian Culture Minister to change her policies. Yet the article in the Times (3/7/98) by my former colleague Jane Perlez that she cites to back her claims only mentions the research of the late Hubertus Czernin, the reporter whose “sweeping series of investigative articles on the confiscated art in Austrian museums in the newspaper Der Standard ”(1998) prompted Austria to change its laws on the art confiscated by the Nazis.

27 Apr 12
15:11 CET

SHAREEN BRYSAC, NEW YORK

Judith Dobrzynski and the filmmakers are entitled to their own opinions but not their own facts. The “Wally” restitution case began not with her article “that triggered everything else” as claimed in her blog but rather when I called Henry Bondi and gave him the name and contact information for Willi Korte who then by means of faxes, letters and calls to lawyers, D.A’s, customs, etc. “led to its seizure by the Manhattan District Attorney.” Without the legal intervention instigated through our efforts, her story would have remained yet another footnote in the sorry history of heirs trying to regain stolen artworks.

25 Apr 12
20:22 CET

BARBARA CHALSMA, BURBANK, CAILFORNIA

Great thanks to ALL of you who helped establish some morality in the treatment of stolen art. Your efforts make my soul soar (no kiddin'!)

25 Apr 12
15:16 CET

BOB ROISTACHER, NEW YORK CITY

Oddly, Dobrzynski missed the most important aspect of "Wally": the DA's having threatened criminal prosecution of those who possess stolen art. By December 3, 1998, eight months before Federal intervention and more than 11 years before the "Wally" was settled, 44 countries subscribed to the "Washington Principles," which placed the burden effort on holders of Holocaust-era art without good provenance. Their national museums were now required to go through their collections and advertise possibly suspect pieces—whereas, before, claimants were lucky to have found out where their ancestors' art works were, much less to learn anything of the works' full post-1933 provenance. Only one or two other works were restituted due to the Feds. It was DA Morgenthau's subpoena in January 1998 that changed the art world. (But thanks, Customs, too, for your help.)

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