Thursday, May 5th, 2011
Vienna’s Leopold Museum is selling an important cityscape by Austrian early Expressionist Egon Schiele in order to be able to afford the settlement price of $19 million dollars to keep another painting of Schiele’s, Portrait of Wally, that was stolen from Jewish art dealer Lea Bondi Jaray by a Nazi agent in late 1939.
The Leopold has the largest collection of Schiele paintings in the world, many of them purchased by collector Rudolf Leopold in the 1950s, which given the time and place means he was buying Nazi loot at least in part. Leopold himself denied vehemently that he was a Nazi profiteer, but he was crazy for Schiele, and he amassed his collection by finding a rare catalog of the artist’s work and then tracking every piece down. Whether his purchases passed through Nazi hands, or even whether the person he was harassing to buy from was a destitute Austrian Jewish émigré who knew the price offered was low but was forced to sell because he needed the money, Leopold was implacably committed to buying.
Leopold sold his collection of over 5,000 important works of modern Austrian art, including major pieces by the likes of Schiele and Klimt, to the Austrian government for a third of their estimated $500,000,000 value on the condition that the government create a museum to house the masterpieces. A few years later, in 1997, the Museum of Modern Art in New York put on a major exhibit of Schiele’s work, including Portrait of Wally on loan from the Leopold. The heirs of Lea Bondi Jaray recognized it as part of her private collection of art which had been forcibly removed from her home by Nazi art dealer and despoiler of Jewish galleries Friedrich Welz the day before she and her husband fled the country in 1939.
In 1998, before MoMA could return Wally to the Leopold, the federal government confiscated the painting under the National Stolen Property Act, keeping the painting in the United States while the Bondi heirs sued the museum. The case wound through the court system for over a decade. The parties finally reached a settlement in July 2010. The deal was the Leopold had to pay the Bondi family $19 million to keep Portrait of Wally, which is a part of the museum’s logo and an iconic centerpiece of its collection, and in return the United States government dropped the criminal case and released the painting. The museum worked out a loan for the sum, but between that $20 million and the $5 million more in legal fees, they knew they were going to have to sell something to pay off the debt.
That something has finally been chosen. It’s a charming cityscape called Häuser mit bunter Wäsche, ‘Vorstadt’ II, which means Houses with Colorful Laundry, ‘Suburb’ II, and it has a squeaky clean ownership history since it belonged first to Schiele’s friend and patron Heinrich Böhler, and then was sold to Rudolf Leopold by Böhler’s widow in 1952. Sotheby’s London will be offering it for auction at their June 22 Impressionist & Modern Sale. The pre-sale estimate is $36-50 million.