Portrait of Wally

Last Monday, I went to a lecture about Art Loot by David D’Arcy at the Spertus Museum. Overall, it was about the Nazi theft of Jewish owned artwork. It’s an area that I don’t know a great deal apart since I focus more on antiquities. So I was keen to learn more.

David D’Arcy co-wrote a recent film called The Portrait of Wally (2012), a documentary about a case involving a looted Egon Schiele painting, an Austrian art foundation, and the MOMA. I just watched the documentary and it’s a hell of a story. Basically, there was a show of Egon Schiele at the MOMA in 1997. It was a collection from an art foundation in Austria but there were rumors that two pieces had Nazi looted histories. A newspaper article that came out in the NYTimes on Christmas Eve that talked about the allegations.

Lea Bondi was an art dealer in Vienna and owned the “Portrait of Wally” personally. A Nazi took her gallery and the painting from her. She escaped to England and started another gallery. But she never gave up trying to get the Portrait of Wally back. She even appealed to an art dealer named Rudolf Leopold to get the painting from the public museum it was hanging in. However, instead of helping her, he traded the painting with the museum and took it for himself.

So when Lea Bondi’s descendents found out about the painting and the article, they tried to sue to get the painting back. They asked the MOMA to hold on to the painting until the courts could decide on the ownership (if it went back to Austria, it would be even more difficult). The MOMA dug in its heels, fearful about that they would have involvement would damage future international loans. Eventually, the government seized the painting, then a court ordered them to release it, then another federal court ordered its seizure, etc.

After 13 years, the case was settled out of court. The Leopold Foundation paid out about 19 million dollars (though it appears that most of the money went to the attorneys) but the Foundation got to keep the painting. But it has to have a wall tag talking about its troubled recent history. But what was remarkable about the case was that it really opened the door for other similar lawsuits paving the way for other families to reclaim a little bit of their past.

Now one common criticism about this restoration process is the fact that we are dealing with a few pieces of canvas compared to the horrors of the Holocaust with millions dead. David D’Arcy had some apt response to that. First, he said that the confiscation of wealth was the first step in the process of the complete annihilation of the Jews. It wasn’t something that happened and then down the road, there were extermination camps. It was all part of a concerted effort to destroy the past, present and future of the Jews. His second argument is that these cases about art restitution are really critical because it works to try to recover some of that lost history. Because of this case, we know about Lea Bondi. And she was one who survived the Holocaust.

So this documentary is important. I hope that I can do some work in restitution cases in the future.

Yesterday I discovered that there may be a bill called “Foreign Cultural Exchange Jurisdictional Immunity Clarification Act.” According to Tesa Davis, Affiliate Researcher in the Scottish Center for Crime and Justice Research at the University of Glasgow, the law “would instead undo established US law and policy by allowing American cultural institutions to block legal claims to artwork on loan from abroad.” Basically, museums could borrow works, stolen, questionable or not, with impunity. I’m still learning more about it. Here is a full article about this proposed bill. It does make an exception for Jewish families trying to get back that Nazi looted art, which is nice in theory but misguided. Sadly, the Holocaust was one of many genocidal occurrences in the last century. Singling out one event is ridiculous. If this one event warrants special treatment, all such events should also warrant special treatment.

Anyway, that’s all for now.

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