Art, Art History, Looted Art

The Nazi Plunder of Egon Schiele’s “Portrait of Wally” Becomes a Documentary to Debut at the TriBeca Film Festival

Egon Schiele, "Portrait of Wally," Oil on Wood, 32.7 × 39.8 cm
Sammlung Leopold, Vienna

The painting “Portrait of Wally” is a 1912 work by Austrian painter Egon Schiele of Valerie “Wally” Neuzil, a woman he met in 1911 when she was 17 years old and who was a model for a number of Schiele’s most striking paintings. The painting was purchased by Rudolf Leopold in 1954 and became part of the collection of the Leopold Museum when it was established by the Austrian government, purchasing 5,000 pieces that Leopold had owned. Near the end of a 1997-1998 exhibit of Schiele’s work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, the painting’s history was revealed in an article published in The New York Times. After the publication, the heirs of Lea Bondi Jaray, to whom the work had belonged, contacted the New York County District Attorney who issued a subpoena forbidding its return to Austria. The work was tied up in litigation for years by Bondi’s heirs, who claimed that the painting was Nazi plunder and should have been returned to them.

In July 2010, the Leopold Museum agreed to pay $19 million to Bondi’s heirs under an agreement that would address all outstanding claims on the painting. [Wikipedia]

The new Austrian documentary, Portrait of Wally, by director Andrew Shea , will take place at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival  in Lower Manhattan from April 18 – April 29, 2012. The film revolves around the Nazi 1939 seizure of the painting from Lea Bondi, a Jewish art dealer fleeing Vienna for her life. For 70 years the Bondi family fought to reclaim the painting in a battle that pitted them against the Austrian government, billionaire art collectors, MoMA, and even NPR.  Shea’s documentary is a fascinating and intricate detective story that highlights the struggle between doing what is right and doing what is convenient.  [Austrian Cultural Forum]

In 1997, when Lea Bondi’s asked MoMA to hold the painting in New York, MoMA and the Leopold Museum dug in their heels and refused. District Attorney Robert Morgenthau issued a subpoena and launched a criminal investigation. A 13-year court battle ensued, tracking the course of a Holocaust property crime and reopening the wounds of one of the century’s worst tragedies – all at a time when the prices of Egon Schiele’s works rose faster than those of any painter on the art market.

The “Wally” case brought the story of Nazi art loot into the open, eventually forcing museums in Europe and the U.S. to search their own collections for suspect objects. Many museums ended up returning art to Jewish families who had abandoned hope until “Wally” showed that institutions could be held accountable for holding property stolen during the Holocaust.

“Portrait of Wally” premieres at the Tribeca Film Festival at 5:30pm, Saturday, April 28. The venue is the SVA Theater, 333 West 23rd Street, Manhattan. (212) 592-2980. It opens at the Quad Theater in Manhattan on May 11 and will be followed by a national release.
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