Wally's Journey

Lecture by Jane Kallir [Museum of Jewish Heritage, August 18, 2010]

On the occasion of the settlement of the Bondi family's claim to the painting Portrait of Wally, by Egon Schiele, and the return of the painting to the Leopold Museum--Private Foundation, in Vienna.


In October 1966, Lea Bondi Jaray wrote to my grandfather, Otto Kallir, asking him to help her recover a Schiele painting, Portrait of Wally, that had been stolen from her by a Nazi art dealer named Friedrich Welz. My grandfather was the founder of the original Neue Galerie in Vienna [after which Ronald Lauder named his New York museum], and had published the first catalogue raisonné of Schiele’s oil paintings in 1930. Kallir was thus a friend and colleague of Bondi, who owned the Galerie Würthle in Vienna before World War II. Both were Jewish, and they had fled, respectively, to New York and London after the Nazi Anschluss in 1938.


In her letters to my grandfather, Bondi described in great detail what had happened to Portrait of Wally. Friederich Welz, the Nazi art dealer, had “Arynanzied” her Vienna gallery, as Jews were no longer allowed to own businesses. “In 1939,” Bondi wrote, “a few days before we left Vienna, Welz came to me to discuss something regarding Würthle. He saw [Portrait of Wally] hanging on my wall and demanded that I give it to him. I explained that the painting was my private property and had nothing to do with Würthle. But he would not stop pressuring me in the most unpleasant manner, until finally my husband (who was there) said ‘Give it to him already. We may want to leave as soon as tomorrow, don’t make difficulties. You know what he can do.’ So that is how [Portrait of Wally] came into the possession of Welz.”


After World War II, Bondi filed a claim against Welz, and the Galerie Würthle was eventually restituted to her. But not the Portrait of Wally. “I asked Welz what had become of my painting,” Bondi recalled, “and he told me that it had been confiscated from him, along with other pictures, and taken to the Belvedere [Museum in Vienna]. … But at that moment there was nothing I could do, . . . because I had to urgently fly back to London, where I was single-handedly running a gallery.”


“A short time later,” Bondi continued in another letter, “[The Austrian collector] Dr. [Rudolf] Leopold came to London. At the time, I still had a good impression of him: a young doctor who was interested in Schiele. He seemed somewhat unpleasant, but I blamed the postwar environment. I told him about [Portrait of Wally] and asked him to get it back from the museum for me. For a long time I didn’t hear anything, until one day I learned … that the painting was included in a Schiele exhibition, as the property of Dr. Leopold.”


Bondi wrote immediately to her Austrian lawyer, Emerich Hunna. At first she hoped the matter could be resolved amicably, but Hunna made it clear that she would need to file a lawsuit. And Bondi was reluctant. The value of the painting (at the time, probably around $1,000) did not seem to warrant a large legal expenditure, especially as she was still struggling, financially, to get reestablished in London. But Bondi also had reason to believe that a lawsuit would fail. “I have the feeling that everybody in Vienna is for Leopold and nobody want[s] to touch him,” she wrote. “I don’t know why? Not the Belvedere and not really my lawyers.” Furthermore, she continued, “I was warned from other Austrian people. … They have done it for things like that without any result. If a Process [that is, a lawsuit] is lost, it is finished for all times. Without doing it, it remains open for all time. I have no confidence in the Austrian judges and also the many witnesses I have.”


Following Bondi’s request that he take the situation in hand, Otto Kallir wrote to his own Austrian lawyer, Konrad Landau, in October 1966. Landau was not at all encouraging. After it was confiscated from Welz, Portrait of Wally had gotten confused with a Schiele belonging to another victim of Nazi looting, Heinrich Rieger, and mistakenly been sold by Rieger’s heirs to the Belvedere. Leopold had acquired Portrait of Wally through an exchange of art work with the Belvedere in 1954. Assuming these to be good-faith transactions, Leopold would under Austrian law have acquired title to Portrait of Wally after three to six years. “What still seemed possible to me in 1957/58,” wrote Landau, “today appears to me to be legally hopeless, even if the entire proceedings speak morally against Leopold. If Mrs. Jaray is now asking you for help in the matter, it is too late.”


Still, my grandfather was not quite willing to let the matter drop. He wrote twice to Landau, in November 1966 and January 1967, suggesting ways in which the case might be approached, pointing out that Portrait of Wally was listed as Bondi’s property in his 1930 Schiele catalogue raisonné, and also that she had told Leopold about her claim before he made the trade with the Belvdere. There was, therefore, reason to believe that this was not a good-faith transaction on Leopold’s part. Otto Kallir also got a signed statement from Robert Rieger, Heinrich’s son, stating that his father had never owned Portrait of Wally and that he, Robert, had no knowledge of the mix-up that had occurred at the Belvedere. Landau does not appear to have answered either of my grandfather’s last two letters.


Lea Bondi Jaray died in 1969, and Otto Kallir in 1978.


In the early 1980s, my partner at the Galerie St. Etienne, Hildegard Bachert, and I were approached by a journalist named Andrew Decker. Decker had heard that the Austrian government was storing a trove of unrestituted Nazi loot at a monastery in Mauerbach. Inasmuch as the Austrian state had, after World War II, been charged with the responsibility of returning these artworks to their rightful owners, the Mauerbach loot seemed to be evidence of negligence, if not outright bad faith. As background for the Mauerbach story, Decker was researching Austria’s overall approach to postwar restitution claims.


Otto Kallir’s efforts to help Lea Bondi Jaray were not an isolated case. As one of Vienna’s leading dealers before World War II, and the author of the Schiele catalogue raisonné, my grandfather knew many prewar collectors and their collections. And because he had reestablished his professional ties to Austria after the war, he was in a position to help Jewish refugees recover artworks that had been stolen during the Nazi period. Hildegard Bachert and I showed Andrew Decker the Bondi correspondence and another file, documenting my grandfather’s fruitless attempts to help Alma Mahler recover a major Munch painting from the Belvedere. Decker’s article on Mauerbach, “Legacy of Shame” appeared in the magazine Artnews in 1984. It caused a major sensation, putting restitution on the map for the first time since the immediate postwar period, and eventually prompting Austria to reopen the claims process for the works in question. I believe Alma Mahler got a brief mention in the Artnews article, but Portrait of Wally was not considered significant enough.


In 1990, I published my catalogue raisonné, Egon Schiele: The Complete Works, and in 1991 I received a fax from Gideon Southwell, a member of the British branch of the Bondi family. He wanted to know what, if anything, I knew about the history of Portrait of Wally. Andrew Decker had referred me to an Austrian lawyer, Helmut Denk, with whom he’d worked on the Mauerbach story. I knew that Austria’s statute of limitations made it very difficult to recover artwork looted by the Nazis, but nonetheless Denk had recently helped a client of mine recover a valuable Schiele drawing. So I sent Southwell a copy of the Bondi file and suggested he contact Denk. Denk’s response was not encouraging: “Unfortunately I must inform you that the situation has not improved since Dr. Konrad Landau’s letter of November 11, 1966. Theoretically, it would still be possible to bring suit, but this would entail the risk of enormous costs.” I suggested to Southwell that we might, as an alternative to legal action, pursue the case in the press, but Andrew Decker still thought the matter was not important enough to merit publication.


And then came the exhibition of the Leopold Collection at the Museum of Modern Art in 1997. A lot had changed since 1991. Lynn Nicholas’s book on Nazi art plundering, The Rape of Europa, had been published in 1994. Hector Feliciano’s book, The Lost Museum, was published the following year. In early 1997, Switzerland came under intense scrutiny for holding dormant bank accounts belonging to Holocaust victims. So I called up Andrew Decker and asked whether, in view of the foregoing, and the impending exhibition of Portrait of Wally at MoMA, he NOW thought the Bondi story might be worth publishing. He allowed that it might, but said he would not be the appropriate writer. Decker suggested I contact Judy Dobrzynski at The New York Times.


As it happened, I ran into Dobrzynski not long thereafter, at the opening of the Leopold exhibition at MoMA in October 1997. I told her I might have a story for her. “It involves Nazis,” I said. Dobrzynski wasted no time in following up, but it took a number of months before her article finally appeared in the Times: on December 24. Christmas Eve. No one will ever read this, I thought.


Well, the rest, as they say, is history.