Schiele's Portrait of Wally -- a Long Court Case

Between October 8, 1997 and January 4, 1998 the Museum of Modern Art exhibited Egon Schiele's Portrait of Wally as part of a major show devoted to the artist borrowed from the Leopold Museum in Vienna, Austria. After the New York County District Attorney subpoenaed the painting as evidence in a stolen property (Holocaust loot) case, the challenges to the subpoena succeeded in New York courts, and it was struck down. U.S. Customs then seized the painting and initiated a forfeiture action (on behalf of the heirs of Lea Bondi Jaray) alleging that the Leopold Museum imported the painting into the U.S. knowing that it was stolen or converted.

In 1994, the Austrian Government and the National Bank of Austria provided funds to make Dr. Rudolf Leopold's personal collection of over 5,000 works a Private Foundation and Museum with Dr. Leopold as its Museological Director-for- Life.

Bondi's heirs tell the court that before she fled Austria, Lea Bondi was the owner of Portrait of Wally and that Friedrich Welz, a Nazi art dealer, forced her to sell it to him for a song on the eve of her leaving. After the war, Bondi continued to make inquiries from her new home in London. When a young Viennese, Dr. Leopold, who was collecting works by Schiele visited her, she asked for his help in recovering the portrait. By then, it had entered the collection of an Austrian museum under confused circumstances, and there Dr. Leopold managed to get Portrait of Wally for his own collection, without informing Lea Bondi. Attorneys for the Leopold Foundation and Museum dispute this narrative.

After ten years of pretrial proceedings, the Chief Judge of the U.S. District Court (New York Southern District) on September 30, 2009 dismissed all of the Leopold Museum challenges to the seizure, leaving for jury trial a single issue: whether the Leopold Museum can prove that its founder, Rudolf Leopold, did not know that the painting was stolen when the Leopold Museum imported it into the United States for the exhibition in 1997.

Over the years, the court documents and the press coverage have been voluminous to say the least. It is more than we can list in our space.

At left, a link will take you to the Opinion rendered on motions for summary judgment, and the main papers that followed--a challenge from the Leopold Museum and an answer to it. and finally, a brief court order refusing to rehear or reconsider the Leopold's objections. The court has scheduled the trial for July 26, 2010.