NPR : MOMA Embroiled in Battle Over Painting Seized by Nazis



Show Date:       2004-12-27
Display Timing: 00:08:00
Segment Number:       19



From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block.

New York's Museum of Modern Art reopened this fall in an expanded, renovated
building that still shows only a fraction of its famed permanent collection.
Among the pieces not on display is a painting that's allegedly stolen.

SIEGEL: The "Portrait of Wally" by Egon Schiele has been in storage for
almost seven years since it was subpoenaed by the Manhattan district
attorney in 1998. It was on loan at the time. And since then, there's been a
battle over who really owns it.

BLOCK: On one side there's the US Justice Department and the heirs of the
Jewish family that owned the painting before World War II. On the other side
are an Austrian government foundation and the Museum of Modern Art. David
D'Arcy reports.

DAVID D'ARCY reporting:

The chairman of the Museum of Modern Art is Estee Lauder cosmetics heir
Ronald Lauder. He's a major collector of the Viennese artists Gustav Klimt
and Egon Schiele. Lauder's also the founder of the Commission for Art
Recovery, which has urged museums around the world to search their
collections for art looted from Jewish families in the Nazi era--museums
like MOMA.

Mr. RONALD LAUDER (Museum of Modern Art): We probably have done a better job
than almost any other museum in the world has done. As a matter of fact,
most American museums have done a spectacular job of going through the
provenance. Most European museums have not.

D'ARCY: At MOMA's opening last month, Lauder talked about guidelines for
institutions and collectors. He said if stolen works are identified in
museum collections, the priority should be to return them to the families
that owned them.

Mr. LAUDER: It first should go back to its rightful heirs, and whatever they
want to do with it is their decision.

D'ARCY: But regarding a specific painting, Egon Schiele's "Portrait of
Wally," his museum's official position is different. MOMA opposes a Jewish
family's effort to recover the painting. The Bondi family spotted "Portrait
of Wally" in late 1997 when it was on loan to MOMA from an Austrian
foundation. The family says a Nazi official stole the picture in 1939 from
their relative, the Viennese dealer Lea Bondi. After the war, the Allies
returned the painting to Austrian authorities, who mistakenly turned it over
to a different Jewish family. The family then sold it to an Austrian museum.

Lea Bondi, who survived the war in London, tracked the picture to Vienna and
asked a then-young Schiele collector, Dr. Rudolf Leopold, to watch it, so
she could reclaim it. Leopold bought the picture for himself over Bondi's
objection. It became part of the Leopold Foundation collection, which was
loaned to MOMA for an exhibition nearly seven years ago. When the Bondi
family spotted it, authorities were notified, and Manhattan District
Attorney Robert Morgenthau subpoenaed the picture on the charge that it was
stolen property. A New York state appeals court overruled Morgenthau. At
that point the federal government stepped in. US attorneys ordered the
painting held again in 1999, preventing its return to Austria. Lawyer and
art historian Lucille Roussin says it's clear who owns the painting.

Ms. LUCILLE ROUSSIN (Lawyer, Art Historian): There's nothing suspicious.
There's nothing that happens between even 1933 and the 1950s that would
cause one to have to go back and search for who the owner was. It's quite
clear who the owner was. It was Lea Bondi.

D'ARCY: None of the parties to the case would be interviewed for this
report, not MOMA's lawyer, not the US attorneys, not the Bondi family and
not the Leopold Foundation. In motions filed in federal court, Leopold's
lawyers argue that Lea Bondi waited too long to claim the portrait; that the
Nazi who seized it was acting under laws of the then legal government and
that Dr. Leopold never knew it was stolen. When MOMA has discussed the case
over the past seven years, the museum has said it's bound by its loan
contract to return the painting, and that position is backed by the American
Association of Museums, by art museums throughout the country and by Ashton
Hawkins, a former museum lawyer who advises dealers and collectors. He
contends that the Schiele case has had a chilling effect on international
art loans.

Mr. ASHTON HAWKINS (Art Adviser): I think that people who would have
previously considered lending now simply don't consider it. You can't
quantify it very well, but I know from my colleagues who arrange these
exhibitions in New York and in other cities that lending to the United
States and particularly to New York has been more of a problem than it used
to be. It doesn't mean you can't get the loans; you can. But many people
just don't want to offer it up.

D'ARCY: But at least one museum director says the real chilling effect is on
the Bondi family. One of the heirs died during the legal battle that's
dragged on for seven years. Tom Freudenheim is former assistant secretary of
the Smithsonian Institution and former deputy director of the Jewish Museum
in Berlin.

Mr. TOM FREUDENHEIM (Former Assistant Secretary, Smithsonian Institution;
Former Deputy Director, Jewish Museum, Berlin): It's especially puzzling,
not only for me because I'm Jewish, but also because the Museum of Modern
Art is directed and chaired by Jews, that they wouldn't somehow have some
sense of responsibility. But I guess the sense of responsibility to museum
ownership and the kind of--oh, I hate--I guess I can use the word--greed
that museums have about just not letting go of what they have in their
little fists trumps any other kind of loyalties or feelings that people

D'ARCY: The Austrian position on the Schiele case has its own
contradictions. The Austrian government funds the Leopold Foundation and has
a majority of seats on its board. Yet the foundation has not complied with
an Austrian law, passed in direct response to the Schiele case, that
mandates searching all state collections for art looted during the Nazi era.
Sophie Lillie is the author of a book that documents the looting of Jewish
property in Vienna.

Ms. SOPHIE LILLIE (Author): There have been documented cases where it's
quite clear that Leopold owned dubious objects, like any other museum. It's
not an unusual situation that they're in. They just haven't done anything
about it, and it doesn't look as if they will very soon.

D'ARCY: Since this dispute began, the value of the "Portrait of Wally" has
more than tripled to between 5 and $10 million. Attorney Thomas Kline
represents individuals and foreign governments trying to recover looted art.
He says the Museum of Modern Art could have helped settle the case in the
late 1990s. He thinks the large institution could be injured in what he
calls its `war of attrition' with the US government and the Bondi family.

Mr. THOMAS KLINE (Attorney): We have to remember that Goliath didn't do very
well in the battle of David and Goliath. And I think it's true that museum
conduct can be self-defeating and very self-destructive when they set out to
win a war of attrition with a claim that they may be able to pry the
claimant down, but they do so at an enormous loss to their own resources and
sometimes to their own credibility and consensus within the community that
they're serving, the interests of the public.

D'ARCY: As the public lines up to enter MOMA's $1/2 billion new home, in
court, a federal judge has come close to mocking the Leopold Foundation's
position. The judge's ruling that allowed the case to go forward compared
Leopold's insistence that the property wasn't stolen to whistling past the
graveyard. Randall Schermberg(ph) is a lawyer who argued successfully before
the United States Supreme Court that a case against Austria by another
claimant family could be heard in this country. He says Egon Schiele's
"Portrait of Wally" is just as stolen as it was in 1939.

Mr. RANDALL SCHERMBERG (Lawyer): It's really just a matter of policy. Do you
really believe that people should be able to recover their stolen goods,
even 50, 60 years later, or not? MOMA apparently feels not. They think that
it's more important that people come and pay $20 to go to their exhibits
rather than individuals recovering their stolen property. I'm not so sure
that the rest of the country has that same view.

D'ARCY: The Schiele case is still in the discovery stage. Lawyers expect the
actual trial to begin later next year. For NPR News, I'm David D'Arcy in New


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