Selective Context: the Passive Approach to Researching Provenance, Part 3: The Convenient Truth

After expressing his belief in the importance of the Schiele exhibit, Lowry would go on to say, “As [‘Wally’] comes under public scrutiny, a great deal of information will come out about it: some problematic, some not. But one must be very careful about applying the standards of today to thinks that happened in the past” (Dobrynzski). Lauder declined to speak any further on the subject of Leopold or his collection after it was pointed out that Lauder also serves as chairman of the World Jewish Congresses commission for recovering Nazi-looted Jewish art (Dobrynzski).

It became clear that Leopold was personally aware of the claim Mrs. Bondi made to “Wally” after her description of their conversation came to light. Leopold insists that he followed up with the Austrian gallery, who claim to have come upon it honestly (Dobrynzki). The catalogue listing for the piece provides an unbroken chain of ownership; however, it is in conflict with both the National Gallery of Austria’s records and with the genealogy of the family in question (Dobrynzski). The details that Leopold provided regarding the provenance of “Wally” and perhaps other pieces in the collection were easily debunked, but none of the museums presenting the exhibition chose to investigate.

This lack of simple verification comes despite many questions about Leopold’s behavior regarding Schiele works, in particular. The Modern went to great lengths to stipulate that their curator retained the right to hang the collection because of Leopold’s notoriety for bullying curators into letting him hang exhibitions (Dobrynzski). When the Modern found itself without the lead-time to write their own catalogue descriptions, they accepted Leopold’s, which omitted commentary on potentially controversial content in favor of a discussion of Schiele’s technique. They were roundly criticized and the curator, Magdalena Dabrowski, ultimately distanced herself from them. Furthermore, Dabrowski is among those that contend that Leopold’s restoration choices have been known to cause damage to the pieces (Dobrynzski). Despite the question about Leopold’s expertise and objectivity, the Modern moved forward with the exhibit without verifying any details.

The Austrian government was not of much help to the borrowing institutions. It purchased the collection after having each individual piece appraised, rather than appraising the collection as a whole; the result was an estimate of $560 million in 1997. The Modern, accordingly, was responsible for insuring the works at around three times their value as a set (Dobrynzski). In acquiring the pieces, the Austrian government essentially legitimized a private collection without gaining the right to assess the collection. This is a result of a restitution law passed in 1998, “which only applies to state-owned museums, even though it was bought by the Republic of Austria…and continues to be financed by it” (Dachler). 1998 was also the year during with the collection was shown at the Modern, resulting in the newspaper article that widely publicized the “Wally” situation.

In 2008, cultural minister Claudia Schmied said,  “It’s of importance for Austria’s image abroad, that the people in our country – but also those who visit it – have the certainty that the paintings they look at in our museums have a clear history and belong to their rightful owners”(Dacheler). However, Salzburg law professor Georg Graf concludes that, “ if the Leopold Museum were state-owned, several paintings would be subject to restitution” (Dachler). The Austrian Green Party cultural spokesman, Wolfgang Zinggl went so far as to call the Leopold Museum, “probably the biggest exhibition of Nazi looted art in Austria for many years” (Dachler). It seems that Leopold himself died unconvinced of that, saying that he is blameless because he primarily purchased art from third parties (Dachler).

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