Fine art stolen by Nazis slowly finding its way home

Conquering armies have returned with booty from time immemorial, but in the 20th century, the Nazis organized what was probably the largest campaign of art theft in history. To call it organized, however, overlooks a rivalry among Nazi leaders that resembled gangsters fighting over their share of the loot.

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"Portrait of Wally" (1912) by Austrian painter Egon Schiele (1890-1918). The painting recently brought $19 million in a settlement resolving stolen Nazi art.

Mary Manion Art Markets Nazi looted artIn his book on the art world in Nazi Germany, “The Faustian Bargain,” historian Jonathan Petropoulos recounts the zigzagging journey of a trio of stolen masterpieces, Raphael’s “Portrait of a Gentleman,” Leonardo da Vinci’s “Lady with an Ermine,” and Rembrandt’s “Landscape with the Good Samaritan.”

They had belonged to Prince Czartoryski from one of Poland’s noble families. Poland, however, had fallen to Germany in 1939 and the Nazis treated the entire nation as spoils of war. A German art historian was dispatched by Luftwaffe commander Herman Goering to seize the three paintings for Berlin’s Kaiser-Friedrich Museum, but was later ordered by the Nazi Governor-General of Poland, Hans Frank, to return the paintings. Goering overruled Frank and sent the art historian back to Cracow a second time to bring the artworks to Berlin.

Conquering armies have returned with booty from time immemorial, but in the 20th century, the Nazis organized what was probably the largest campaign of art theft in history. To call it organized, however, overlooks a rivalry among Nazi leaders that resembled gangsters fighting over their share of the loot. While “decadent” modern art was purged from the museums of the Third Reich and placed with dealers in Berlin, Paris and elsewhere to be sold for foreign currency, most of the stolen art within Germany and the nations overrun by Hitler’s army was intended for the private collections of Nazis and their favorite museums, as well as new museums Hitler and his associates planned to endow once the war was over.

The Nazis loved art, especially the old masters but also the artifacts of medieval Europe along with more recent work in the Romantic or Classical styles favored by Nazi aesthetics. The leaders of the Third Reich were determined to strip Europe of any painting or statue they coveted, sometimes rationalizing their actions by speaking of “returning” paintings of Germanic origin to their homeland. In some places, such as the Netherlands, rival Nazis purchased art from private collectors, albeit often at rates of exchange favorable to themselves. In Poland, on the other hand, the Nazis organized “commando” teams to locate, catalog and confiscate all art of interest, whether in private hands or the possession of museums and even the Roman Catholic Church. Force was sometimes used as well as detective work. Nazi art commandos sometimes tracked down paintings concealed by Poland’s museum curators in cellars and other hiding places.

Widespread plundering by the Gestapo, the SS and specialized agencies had already begun before World War II in Austria and Germany with the seizure of art from Jewish collectors. Much of that booty went to German museums that vied with each other for prized paintings. Others passed directly into the hands of Hitler and his cronies.

One such case involved Viennese Successionist painter Egon Schiele’s “Portrait of Wally” (1912), which was stolen from its owner, Viennese art dealer Lea Bondi Jaray, by Nazi art dealer Frierich Welz in 1939, after the annexation of Austria to Germany. The painting, a portrait of Schiele’s favored model Valerie Neuzil, was recovered near the end of the war by U.S. forces who erroneously attributed its ownership to Heinrich Rieger, a Schiele collector, who had died in a concentration camp. The artwork was handed to the Austrian government and bequeathed to the Austrian National Gallery.

In 1953, the Viennese art collector Rudolf Leopold offered to help retrieve the Schiele to its rightful owner from the National Gallery but ended up acquiring the painting for his own growing collection of modern Austrian art. An eye doctor by profession, Leopold amassed one of the largest private collections of Austrian art of the early 20th century, with works ranging from the Wiener Secession and Art Nouveau through Expressionism. Key artists included Gustav Klimt (1862-1918), Oscar Kokoschka (1886-1980) and Richard Gerstl (1883-1908) as well as over 200 works by Schiele.

Bondi retained lawyers to persuade Leopold to return “Wally” to her. All attempts were unsuccessful and she continued the fight to recover the painting until her death in 1969.

In 1994 the Austrian government, with the assistance of the National Bank of Austria, purchased Leopold’s collection of over 5,000 works of art for a sum between $240 million and $500 million (reports vary widely) and bequeathed the collection to the newly founded Leopold Museum Private Foundation, naming Rudolf Leopold director for life.

In 2001 the Leopold Museum opened to the public in Vienna. But Schiele’s “Wally” was not in the museum. The portrait had been loaned by Leopold to New York’s Museum of Modern Art for a 1997 exhibit when it was spotted by Bondi’s heirs, which lead to a 1999 federal seizure warrant for the painting. The U.S. Justice Department commenced a civil action in order to forfeit “Wally” and return it to its rightful owner, Bondi’s estate. Finding probable cause that the painting was stolen property imported into the United States in violation of federal law, the painting ended up in possession of U.S. Customs where it was held in a warehouse in New York until a federal court ruled in 2009 that the painting was stolen art. In July of the following year, a settlement was reached: “Wally” remained in the Leopold Foundation’s possession in exchange for a $19 million settlement paid to the heirs of Lea Bondi Jaray. Also, the artwork must be accompanied by signage detailing its historical provenance and displayed at New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage before returning it to Austria.

The settlement came shortly before the scheduled trial in which a federal court would decide if collector Rudolf Leopold was aware that the painting was stolen Nazi art when it came into U.S. territory for the ill-fated MOMA exhibit in 1997. Leopold died one month before trial.

The successful conclusion to the seven-decade odyssey of Egon Shiele’s sultry portrait “Wally” highlights the enormous value placed on art and its historical context as a spoil of war. The 11-year Leopold civil forfeiture action has brought public attention to the Nazis’ systematic art pillage. To protect museums and the victims of art theft, the Association of American Museum Directors has issued guidelines to resolve ownership claims arising from seizures of artwork before, during and immediately after World War II. In the aftermath of the controversy over “Wally,” it is likely that other museums and private collectors will be faced with questions over the provenance of their art.

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