18 January 2012

“The Portrait of Walli”: The Case that Will Not Go Away

Portrait of Walli, by Egon Schiele
Source: Bloomberg
In an odd twist of events that allows Egon Schiele’s “Portrait of Walli” to resurface as a magnet for attention, Robert E. Roistacher, former chairperson of the Manhattan Solid Waste Advisory Board, and a 1968 graduate of Columbia University, filed a “demand for judgment” against Andre Bondi and Edith Southwell, the heirs of Lea Bondi Jarai, the late rightful owner of “Walli” whose painting was returned to the Leopold Foundation in Vienna, Austria, in exchange for 19,000,000 $. [the complaint was officially filed, right? Is there a public source to the info?]

Mr. Roistacher is asking for $4,500,000 in professional services that he rendered to the family which include “developing a plan to restrain the property…from leaving New York County, New York, and the jurisdiction of United States courts, until restitution was made therefor.” Roistacher argues that he introduced the Bondi Jaray family members to “legal counsel” and helped in the recovery of the painting.

The demand represents a quarter of the settled value of the painting, and was filed in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York on November 14, 2011.

The “Walli” case has an original aspect to it. You might recall that the painting was identified in late 1997 as being the property of Lea Bondi Jaray’s family while on display at the Museum of Modern Art of New York, loaned for that purpose by the Leopold Foundation in Vienna, as part of a major retrospective of Egon Schiele’s works. Ronald S. Lauder, former US Ambassador to Austria, and chairman of the Board of MOMA, was instrumental in facilitating this keystone exhibit of the Austrian Secessionist’s provocative and sensual works.

Robert Morgenthau, former District Attorney of Manhattan
Source: Zimbio
Once “Walli” was fingered as possible looted cultural property, a mad scramble ensued to keep the painting from returning to Austria after the exhibit had ended its run at MOMA. The painting, wrapped and crated, was slated to depart in the first week of January 1998. On the eve of its departure, however, then District Attorney of Manhattan, Robert Morgenthau, son of the late Henry Morgenthau, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Treasury Secretary from 1933 to 1945, called in the cavalry in the form of New York’s “finest men in blue”—the Police Department—and had the painting seized in order for the aggrieved parties to be given a fair hearing on the matter of the ownership of “Walli.”

The seizure represented Phase One of the case. Phase Two dragged on for twelve long years until a settlement was reached with the Leopold Foundation in July 2010, which was brokered by the law firm of Herrick Feinstein acting on behalf of the Lea Bondi Jaray estate.

The question raised by this new twist appears to be: what exactly happened during Phase One? It was sufficiently complex that a serious history of that period may need to be written. Until then, we will see what unfolds with Mr. Roistacher’s claim.