30 April 2012

Wild Weekend with Wally-Part Two

Close-up view of "Portrait of Wally"
Source: Google Images
Andrew Shea, Director
Source: Google Images
The making of a documentary film on the fate of the “Portrait of Wally” is a heady exercise. Its subject matter is a loving, dreamy and complicit portrait by Egon Schiele of his mistress, Walburga Neuzil. This was no art historical exercise here, though, especially coming from a legally-trained filmmaker, Andrew Shea, a veteran journalist, David D'Arcy, who straddles the fence between art and politics, and a well-seasoned film festival organizer, Barbara Morgan. “Wally” is all about the forensics of a racially-motivated theft in Nazi-absorbed Austria and the postwar attempts to recover title to an illegally acquired painting, “Portrait of Wally”, from an iconic figure of the Austrian art world, Rudolf Leopold, more interested in protecting ill-gotten treasures which were ripped from the bosoms of persecuted Jews in a nation that forgot to mete out justice against the culprits of Nazi collaboration.
Howard Spiegler, attorney for the Bondi Estate
Source: Google Images
The fight over Wally echoes the deep-seeded schisms that underlie the frail ties that bind Jews with non-Jews in nations implicated in different aspects of the Final Solution through intense, widespread collaboration at all levels of the society. By extension, it is about those who did nothing to help those who suffered for the fact that the others did nothing. An uneasy situation with which most European societies have yet to fully come to grips, albeit clumsily and unevenly, some countries behave better than others, although nowadays, anything is possible in the face of a massive rightward and chauvinistic shift in European politics.

David D'Arcy
Source: Google Images
False notions of venality have plagued the claimants of “Wally”—in this case, the Bondi heirs—through press reports (New York Times being no exception), statements made by museum and art world figures who are apparently more concerned with the value of an object and the inviolability of collections than with human justice.

The Wally case encapsulates all that is wrong with the way in which we relate to culture. Our ability to so eagerly disconnect an object from its history is disconcerting, much like when grave robbers violate the sanctity of a tomb and rip out from its matrix funerary objects meant to accompany their owners into the afterlife. De-contextualization makes it all the more easier to ignore the fact that an object has a human history, a social history, one that is organically connected to its previous owners, its jealous rivals, its covetous admirers, and its oglers. That is not to say that we should all weep and moan at the vagaries of history and the incessant and continual tragedies that sever ties between objects and owners—no, we are not comparing art objects to our favorite pets.

Andre Bondi, son of the late Henri Bondi
Source: Google Images
Left to Right.: Sharon Levin, Willi Korte, and Andrew Shea
Source: Google Images
In the case of Wally, we now have 20-20 hindsight—how convenient! Those who steadfastly opposed the Bondis’ claim to “Wally” and railed against Robert Morgenthau’s seizure of the painting are now gloating about their early involvement in the “Wally” case. The silent ones are those who produced the most damage—MoMA, and by extension, the New York art world, writ large; the Leopold Museum and, by extension, many in the Viennese cultural world, as well as members of select organizations traditionally devoted to the protection of the rights of Holocaust survivors and their heirs and to the greater good of the Jewish community at large.

 Is it so naïve to think that, if in late 1997 and early 1998--the crucial time frame for the Wally "Case"—MoMA, the Leopold Museum, the Federal Government, Jewish organizations, had reacted differently to the plight of the Bondi family, the Wally “case” might not have been a “case” at all? I am one of those who is that naïve to believe so. Woe on me! The seizure could have been so easily avoided. A dialogue between the parties, such as had been offered by HARP in late December 1997, might have spared all the parties thirteen long and tedious years which involved attorneys, judges, experts, researchers, historians, family members, government officials, on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. An enormous waste of time, energy, and priceless resources, if you ask me.

But such as it is, human nature can be vile in its inability to produce empathy, understanding as it steadfastly adheres as if life itself depended on it to confining, self-serving, self-satisfying legal and fiduciary frameworks and principles—who owns what when? Under what circumstances? I work in a museum, you don’t. Who are you anyway? I am a collector, you are not, etc., etc., etc. Should one even dare cross the Rubicon and wonder whether the underpinnings of those legalistic and defensive questions do not belie more sinister thought processes such as: why do those Jews always fret about what is theirs and what is not theirs? Haven’t they received enough? Is it because “Wally” is worth two million dollars (in 1997) that the Bondi family has asserted its rights of ownership? Is it greed disguised as justice that creates these complications? So many ugly thoughts and questions which pervaded the press and trade debate over Wally, ugly as could be, thus rendering any adult and civilized conversation about the ownership history of this painting by Egon Schiele nigh impossible, resulting in what we have come to know as the “Wally Case.”

End of Part Two

Wild Weekend with Wally—Part One

Self-Portrait, by Egon Schiele, 1912
Source: Google Images
No, it’s not what it sounds like. I did not spend a wild weekend with Wally. 

Portrait of Wally, by Egon Schiele, 1912
Source: Google Images
The Wally in question is “The Portrait of Wally”, a new documentary which was screened at the TriBeCa Film Festival in New York, on April 28 and 29, 2012, and directed by Andrew Shea and co-produced by David D’Arcy and Barbara Morgan. Morgan and Shea hail from Austin, TX. D’Arcy is a veteran reporter, formerly affiliated with National Public Radio (NPR) who has filed many stories about the international art market especially in regard to looted art in American collections.

The Wally of which we speak is the now-iconic portrait of a Viennese woman, Walburga Neuzil, who was the mistress of the man who painted her, Egon Schiele. The painting dates from 1912. Schiele created it as a pendant to a self-portrait executed that same year, six years before his untimely death caused by the Spanish flu. Both works currently hang on the walls of the Leopold Museum in Vienna, Austria.

And that is the end of the story.

There would have been no “Wally Story” had this Schiele painting not been stolen from its rightful owner, Lea Bondi Jarai, a Viennese Jewish gallery owner.
Lea Bondi Jarai
Source: ArtsJournal
The thief was a self-avowed Nazi art collector and dealer, Friedrich Welz, who had become emboldened by the March 1938 Anchluss-the willing absorption of Austria into Hitler’s Greater German Reich. This would have been yet another story of Nazi thefts of cultural assets belonging to Jews had it not been for an unscrupulous art dealer and collector named Rudolf Leopold, who with his wife, Elisabeth, built up one of the world’s largest postwar collections of works by Egon Schiele, a collection that verges on idolatry and self-aggrandizing fetishism. By the time the Leopolds had “acquired” Wally through an illegal exchange with a leading Viennese museum in the 1950s, Lea was living in exile in London where she had resumed her art trading activities. She died in 1969, heartbroken at not having recovered the painting which she continually sought in the postwar years, pleading with Leopold to help her. Unbeknownst to her, Leopold now possessed it, despite the lies that he had spewed at her to disguise his machinations aimed at deceiving her so as to be able to acquire Wally and make her his to possess forever.

Rudolf Leopold
Source: The Arts Newspaper

Elisabeth Leopold
Source: Google Images
The story could have just ended there in all of its sordid details, a story of unremitting greed and lust displayed by a Viennese couple enraptured with Schiele’s works, who had openly flirted with and benefited from the Nazi years and the postwar continuum of Nazi influence in Austrian society, taking full advantage of the plight of Viennese Jews to build up their Schiele collection, revered the world over, in particular by American collectors and dealers, most explicitly those centered in New York City.

The official story of what we have come to know as the Wally Case entered its prelude in October 1997 when the Leopold Museum exhibited its treasures at the Museum of Modern Art, whose chairman, Ronald Lauder, was a self-admitted Schiele fan and collector. Needless to say, the exhibit was a success but the presence of Wally on its walls ruined it all for MoMA, for its director, Glenn Lowry, for Leopold, and especially for the Bondi family, next of kin of Lea Bondi Jaraj, who had discovered that the painting was in the United States exhibited under their very noses, with a provenance worthy of a second-rate work of fiction—no mention of Lea’s true ownership of the work, a fictitious sequence of individuals who had nothing to do with the painting’s pedigree. But, as we know, provenances, more often than not, are mere adornments, however fanciful they might be.
Willi Korte
Source: Zimbio

The “Wally case” began after the Bondis attempted to clarify the true ownership of the work and failed to convince MoMA’s leadership and Leopold to engage in a dialogue over the ownership of the painting so as to determine its fate. After numerous futile attempts, MoMA invited the Bondi heirs to sue them in order to prevent the painting from leaving the US and returning to Vienna where there would have been no “fair hearing.”

Willi Korte,  veteran researcher, historian, jurist and investigator of looted cultural property and a co-founder of the Holocaust Art Restitution Project (HARP) helped Henri Bondi get his research ducks in order to prepare for a full-frontal campaign to get Wally back. Others like Marc Masurovsky, Ori Soltes and their legal counsel, Jeanine Benton, also of HARP, were urging Senate Banking Committee staff, Jewish organizations and law enforcement agencies to step into the breach and do “something” to keep the painting in the US.

By early January 1998, it didn’t look good. After Senator D’Amato demanded the seizure of the collection, he recused himself almost as dramatically, having received a phone call from one of his most ardent campaign donors who asked him to reconsider his rash statement. And so he did. US Customs—now ICE—in the person of Special Agent Bonnie Goldblatt were ready to pounce but were left out in the cold because of D’Amato’s sudden withdrawal and the equally callous abandonment by other Federal officials at State and Commerce who had ruled that this was indeed a private matter which should not require official American governmental interference that might intrude on the good relations between the United States and Austria.

Special Agent Bonnie Goldblatt
Source: ArtsJournal

Robert Morgenthau
Source: Google Images
All this to say that all five of us were rather alone that first week of January, dismayed at the cowardice displayed by elected and appointed officials alike, the cynicism of the art world, and the apparent indifference of American Jewish groups including the World Jewish Congress and the American Jewish Committee, who refused to lift a finger on behalf of the Bondis, the legitimate heirs of a victim of Nazi persecution. Is it a coincidence that the chairman of the board of MoMA was also the secretary-treasurer of the WJC? We’ll leave that alone for now…

The last hope was Robert Morgenthau, District Attorney of Manhattan. He emerged as the ultimate mensch of the Wally story, consistent with his lineage—a grandfather, Harry, who had blown the whistle on Ottoman massacres of Armenian civilians in 1915 before resigning as a foreign service official during President Wilson’s tenure; a father, Henry, Treasury Secretary under Franklin Roosevelt (FDR) and the most ardent anti-Nazi member in FDR’s government—its only “cabinet Jew.”

HARP forwarded a set of documents to Morgenthau’s office before and after New Year’s of 1998 outlining the weaknesses of MoMA and Leopold’s position—in their haste to exhibit the Schiele works, MoMA and Leopold had forgotten to “immunize” or shield the collection against any possibility of legal challenges arising from claims to rightful ownership while the works were on display in the United States—a foreshadowing of the proposed Senate Bill 2212 currently stalled in the Senate Judiciary Committee. The paintings were thus vulnerable to any legal action taken against them on US territory, especially arising out of a claim of rightful ownership. For Morgenthau, the presence of stolen property in his jurisdiction was, in his own words, “unacceptable.”

During that first week of January 1998, the skies were bleak, the prospect of a fair hearing for the Bondi heirs seemed more like a remote fantasy than an impending reality. With no one left to uphold their interests, MoMA and Leopold were about to breathe a sigh of relief, except that they did not factor in the unlikely and outrageous possibility that something drastic might just prevent the paintings from leaving the United States. On January 7, 1998, Morgenthau obtained the necessary legal instruments by which to order the seizure of Wally and another painting, Dead City III, until the ownership of these works could be clarified. The men in blue entered MoMA’s front doors on 53rd Street and made arrangements to have Wally and Dead City III sequestered. For the first time in recent memory, an American official had directly intervened with a cultural event in an American museum by ordering the seizure of works on loan for display there.

End of Part One.

Repatriation of looted antiquities to Italy

by Keri Douglas (Special to plundered art)

Source: Keri Douglas
In an official ceremony held on April 26, 2012, at the Italian Embassy in Washington, DC, seven rare and priceless artifacts were repatriated to Italy, as part of an on-going international effort to track down, recover and return trafficked works and objects of art.

"The story of each of these of artifacts tell us about the talent of great masters of painting, of sculpture and of the written word as well as tell of the time that each of the masters dedicated to beauty, to art, civilization and of course, the Lord." said Italian Ambassador Claudio Bisogniero hosting the ceremony at the Italian Embassy in Washington, DC with U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano.

Source: Keri Douglas
Source: Keri Douglas
The objects in pristine condition with a value well over a million and a half dollars were displayed on simple easels and pedestals. Two vessels, 2000 years old, were dug from the earth in Italy, smuggled into Switzerland and then transferred to Beverly Hills before being seized in New York at Christie's Auction House. A small Roman marble statue, a janiform herm, also was smuggled from Italy into Switzerland before being auctioned at Christie's Auction House. Three 13th century illuminated choir book leaves, ripped from two separate books, one at St. Paul's Church in Pistoia and the other from the Monastery of Monte Oliveto Maggiore in Siena, were found on-line for sale by a rare book dealer in Portland, Oregon. The last object, unveiled with great flare, was the renaissance painting, "Leda e il Cigno" (Leda and the Swan) by Lelio Orsi, most rare for it is an oil painting on copper, had been illegally imported into the United States and was auctioned at Sotheby's in New York.

Ambassador Bisogniero said, "Criminals should have no illusion Italy and the US are firmly together in this effort and are strongly committed to combat these crimes."

However, when asked to explain the rare prosecutions in the United States despite the stated link of art trafficking to organized crime, John Morton, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director explained that these cases are very difficult to prosecute. The challenges are due to the complicated patterns traffickers create; the time elapsed from the actual theft and the time of sale or appearing in the public domain; and the forgery of documents. Often, Morton said, the perpetrator is dead.

Morton made clear though that the Italians are monitoring the global art market and the evolving Italian organized crime networks. The office of the Italian Carabinieri for the Protection of Cultural Heritage General B. Pasquale Muggeo is arresting and prosecuting individuals. In fact, the discovery of these seven objects were the result of the Italian law enforcement community aggressively monitoring the internet and art sale catalogues for stolen Italian art.

Keri Douglas is a writer/photographer and communications consultant with www.ninemusesinternational.com. Follow her on Twitter at @keridouglas.