The United States of America v. Portrait of Wally

by Tanner D’Ortenzio

The question, pondered by historians and inquisitive minds alike has garnered a multitude of books, articles, and discussions. What if Adolf Hitler’s paintings had gotten him into art school? As tantalizing as this possibility may seem, the fact of the matter is that the monstrous ruler of the Third Reich used this failure as fuel to systematically seize or demolish all forms of art and culture that he deemed as corruptive to the German people. At the time, this seizure posed little legal ramifications due to the facts that a) The people whose possessions were confiscated were in no position to fight these unjust acts, and b) Nazi officials acquired these possessions “legally” through means of coercion and intimidation. One specific case of this occurred in Vienna in 1938 to an Austrian art gallery owner, who just so happened to be Jewish. The following 63 year-long battle and court case over the ownership of famed artist Egon Schiele’s Portrait of Wally has made waves in the field of art law, and provides us with guidance on how to treat the ownership of Nazi looted art in the future.

In Hitler’s autobiographical manifesto Mein Kampf, he speaks on his love of art and application process for the Academy of Fine Arts – Vienna, even going so far as to brag about how confident he was on passing the entrance exam.[1] Unbeknownst to young Adolf his work was seen as being “utterly devoid of rhythm, color, feeling, or spiritual imagination. They are architect’s sketches: painful and precise draftsmanship; nothing more.” [2] Many of the popular forms of art at the time such as Dada, Surrealism, and Expressionism stood in stark contrast to the unimaginative nature of Hitler’s artistry. This contrast would cement a lasting impression in the future dictators mind, playing an important role in the Nazi Party’s future seizure of art.

A few short years after Adolf Hitler’s failed venture into the art scene, the Nazi Party began their first official confiscations after the annexation of Austria in 1938.[3] To streamline this process, the government issued the “Decree for the Reporting of Jewish-Owned Property” calling for all Jews born in either Germany or Austria to report all property worth more than $2,000 U.S. at the time.[4] One specific instance of this occurred in Vienna, to the Jewish Art Gallery owner named Lea Bondi. After selling her gallery to Nazi official Friedrich Welz, Mr. Welz followed in the footsteps of the führer and attempted to “aryanize” Mrs. Bondi’s former gallery. This attempt of “ayraninazion” was aimed directly at pieces of art such as Dadaism, surrealism, expressionism, and other works of art the Nazi Party saw as being “Degenerate”[5] “Hitler wanted new cultural and artistic creativity to arise in Germany, with the “folk-related” and “race-conscious” arts of Nazi culture replacing what he called the “Jewish decadence” of the Weimar Republic.” [6] The same themes that Hitler despised following his rejection from art school. In addition to Mrs. Bondi’s gallery, Mr. Welz purchased more of Egon Schiele’s artwork from a Dr. Rieger, another Austrian-born jew who worked as an art collector.

After the U.S occupation of Austria in 1945, Friedrich Welz was arrested for being a Nazi collaberator and all of his property, including Schiele’s “Portrait Of Wally” and other works were confiscated by the United States Armed Forces.[7] On par with US policy at the time, the Reparations, Deliveries and Restitution Division of the United States returned the stolen paintings to the Bundesdenkmal, or the Austrian Federal Office for the Preservation of Historical Monuments. [8] This was a common act at the time, “…rather than return work to each heir, the allies decided give the paintings back to the rightful governments (which often were still anti-Semitic) for ultimate restitution.” [9] In turn, the Bundesdenkmal returned all of the Schiele works in their possession to the heirs of Dr. Reiger. This mistake on who the rightful owner was caused “The Portrait of Wally” to fall into the wrong hands once more when the Reigel heirs sold the paintings to the Österreichische Galerie Belvedere, a famous Austrian Museum in Vienna.

Meanwhile, the Bondi’s still lived in London and sought out the advice of a Schiele expert by the name of Dr. Rudolf Leopold in hopes that he could locate her beloved “Portrait of Wally.” In an act of pure deceit, “Dr. Leopold told her it was in the Galerie Belvedere but that it would be impossible to retrieve and that the Belvedere would never part with it. However, Leopold turned around and acquired Portrait of Wally from the gallery in exchange for other works.” [10] After many years, Mrs. Bondi sadly dies in 1969 after never attempting to retrieve her painting again. Dr. Leopold brings the story back to life when Schiele and other paintings in his private collection to the New York Museum of Modern Art in 1997. Three days after the exhibition, the New York County District Attorney issued a subpoena claiming the painting was stolen from the Bondis in 1938. This subpoena was in direct violation of section 12.03 of New York’s Arts and Cultural Affairs Law which protects the seizure of any form of fine art while on exhibition and was shut down by the New York courts. [11] A few short days after, United States Magistrate Judge James C. Francis filed for a seizure of the “Portrait of Wally” with 12 years of legal battles to follow. The trial was set to take place in July of 2010, but shortly before the proceedings began, Dr. Leopold unfortunately passed away. As unfortunate as this death was, it allowed for smoother negotiations between the Bondi heirs and the Leopold Foundation eventually reaching a settlement of $19 million dollars. In addition to this settlement, the Schiele painting would stay in Austria.[12]

The legality surrounding Nazi-Looted art is as complex as it is intriuging. Almost 80 years of loans, sales, and seizures of various pieces of fine art has created a complex web of questions. The case of the United States of America v. Portrait of Wally is an example of how it is the duty of art collectors, gallery owners, and museums to make sure all reparations are made so that the victims of these Nazi seizures are reunited with your rightfully owned artworks. In addition to this, the case sets a precedent that even if the art is not necessarily returned to the rightful owner, a settlement must be made between the parties. One thing can be certain and universally agreed upon, the acts committed by Hitler and the Nazi Party are inexcusable. It is our duty and the duty of both Nations and museums alike to seek absolute restitution of the fine art stolen by the Nazi regime. Fine Art must be preserved, it is a means for people to cope with all aspects of life. Art allows us humans to free the mind of limitations and insecurities, it allows us to dive deep into our inner selves and discover the whims of our hearts. But above all else, art is an expression, and the freedom of expression must be preserved for all generations to come.

[1] See Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf 24 (1925).

[2] John Gunther, Inside Europe 1 (1919).

[3] Anne Rothfeld, Nazi Looted Art:The Holocaust Records Preservation Project , Prologue Mag., vol. 34, no. 2, Summer 2002.

[4] Lorraine Boissoneault, A 1938 Nazi Law Forced Jews to Register Their Wealth—Making It Easier to Steal, Smithsonian Mag., 2018

[5] Lucy Burns, Degenerate art: Why Hitler hated modernism, BBC, 2013

[6] Lorraine Boissoneault, A 1938 Nazi Law Forced Jews to Register Their Wealth—Making It Easier to Steal, Smithsonian Magazine, 2018

[7] Raphael Contel, Giulia Soldan, Alessandro Chechi, “Case Portrait of Wally – United States and Estate of Lea Bondi and Leopold Museum,” Art-Law Centre, University of Geneva.

[8] Raphael Contel, Giulia Soldan, Alessandro Chechi, “Case Portrait of Wally – United States and Estate of Lea Bondi and Leopold Museum,” Art-Law Centre, University of Geneva.

[9] Isaac Kaplan, 3 Cases That Explain Why Restituting Nazi-Looted Art Is So Difficult

[10] Isaac Kaplan, 3 Cases That Explain Why Restituting Nazi-Looted Art Is So Difficult

[11] NY.§12.03.1991

[12] United States of America v. Portrait of Wally, a painting by Egon Schiele, Defendant in Rem, 663 F. Supp. 2d 232 (S.D.N.Y. 2009)