11 May 2011

A “fair and just settlement” for a looted Schiele in Vienna?

Any public announcement of a settlement of a claim against the Leopold Museum in Vienna, Austria, must be greeted with a hefty dose of skepticism.

In the latest round, on the heels of the so-called return to the Leopold Foundation of the “Portrait of Wally” by Egon Schiele for a toll fee of $19 million dollars, another issue has cropped up involving “Houses by the Sea”, painted by Egon Schiele in 1914.

Houses by the Sea, Egon Schiele
Source: Leopold Museum via Bloomberg
According to today’s press reports, Dr. Rudolph Leopold had acquired the painting in 1955 after its illegal seizure from Jenny Steiner and subsequent sale by Nazi authorities in wartime Vienna. As in the case of the “Portrait of Wally,” Leopold had a tendency to be fully cognizant of the tainted past of his Schiele acquisitions without paying due heed to the moral implications of his acts, in the name of garnering in a fantastically egotistical manner the largest collection of works by Schiele in the world. He achieved his goal, playing fast and loose with Jewish victims’ losses and with History, the history of spoliation of an entire class of citizens in post-Anschluss Austria.

The “partial” settlement reached by Dietmar Leopold, Rudolph’s son, grants $5 million to Jenny Steiner’s grand-daughter, for a third of the painting. There remains the question of settling with the unnamed “US institutions” that account for the remaining interest in the painting.

Although Dietmar Leopold is confident that he will be able to settle all outstanding claims against his parents’ vast Schiele collection, one must pause at the disquieting notion that such an idea is good and represents “a fair and just” reflection of the actual circumstances underlying the presence of tainted works in the Leopold Foundation’s permanent collection.

More troublesome is the press release of the Leopold Foundation. Absent are comments from Jenny Steiner’s grand-daughter. Her silence is deafening. And yet, the Foundation ecstatically thanks her for her “willingness to contribute to this favorable solution.” Moreover, the very same people who refused to return the “Portrait of Wally” to the Bondy heirs for over four decades laud the personal involvement of Frau Leopold and her son to resolve these complex matters and reach a “fair and just solution.” Even more reprehensible is the declaration that the painting is “doubtlessly the property of the Leopold Museum Private Foundation.” Another way of rubbing salt in the wound. Maybe, theft does convey title in Austria, which it does not in the United States.

As some have pointed out recently, it strikes one as odd that a painting cannot be restituted to the rightful owner’s heir while another painting can be so easily removed from the walls of the Leopold Foundation and be offered up for sale at Sotheby’s so as to pay for the settlement of yet another painting, namely the “Portrait of Wally.” All of this smacks of the same kind of cruel cynicism that tortured and demeaned the Bondy family throughout the postwar years and into the final weeks of the settlement last July 2010. A sad commentary on the current state of affairs in Vienna. One would have thought that the Austrian government could have taken a greater role in ensuring that justice might prevail once and for all, especially after Rudolph Leopold’s death. By its own admission, the Austrian government can intervene and exert significant influence on decisions made by the Leopold Foundation, especially those that engage its fiduciary responsibilities. And yet, it does not. Perhaps, nothing much has changed after all in Vienna.