INTRO TO THE LEOPOLD COLLECTION

According to the organization’s press release, the Leopold Collection was acquired “over five decades [and] were consolidated in 1994.” The government of the Republic of Austria joined forces with Rudolf Leopold to found the Leopold Museum Private Foundation. The Foundation set about making the collection available to the public and Leopold received the Cross of Honor for Art and Science, First Class. The museum opened on September 21st, 2001 and showcases a number of 19 and 20th century Austrian artists (“Press”).

On the surface, this seems like a harmless story about how a museum might come into existence – a modern benefactor provides a collection and the government provides a space to house it. The United States set up the Smithsonian Institution in a similar fashion after James Smithson’s only heir passed away. A clause went into effect bequeathing Smithson’s entire estate to the United States federal government (“History”). While the reason Smithson, a British citizen, was motivated to leave his considerable estate to the U.S. government remains a mystery, few doubt his intentions were good.

This is not exactly the case with Leopold. Leopold, who acquired much of his collection at auction, is believed to have a significant number of artworks that were stolen after Nazi Germany annexed Austria in 1938 (Prodhan). During the Second World War, Hitler retained works that he deemed appropriate for his Germany and coerced other European countries into purchasing the ‘degenerate’ art by burning almost five thousand works of art (Barker). Works of art were either sold directly by the Nazi regime or stolen by high-ranking officers to sell or display (Barker).  In 2007, “Austria revealed the existence of more than 10,000 paintings and sculptures, hidden since 1945 in monasteries,” says Barker, “London dealers close to the ‘restitution’ business predict that 100 to 150 paintings will come off the walls of German museums in the next 25 years and be restored to the families of their original owners” (Barker).

Thanks to the very public resignation of Tobias Natter in 2013, we know that the question of rightful repatriation and Nazi affiliation is far from over for the Leopold Collection. Leopold himself “resisted restitution claims until his death in 2010” (Prodhan). Natter came on during the period of restitution that followed and oversaw the process of establishing the provenance of the 6,000 pieces in the collection (Prodhan). The Austrian government is inextricably tied up in this process as a result of its purchase of the collection before transferring the works to the foundation (Prodhan).

Former director Natter announced his departure “after some of [the museum’s] most senior staff joined a controversial new foundation associated with Klimt’s illegitimate son… whose works included Nazi propaganda” (Prodhan). There is little reason to question the scrutiny that the Leopold Museum and Foundation are experiencing, but what of the countries that have chosen to exhibit their works?

According to the organization’s press release, the Leopold Collection was acquired “over five decades [and] were consolidated in 1994.” The government of the Republic of Austria joined forces with Rudolf Leopold to found the Leopold Museum Private Foundation. The Foundation set about making the collection available to the public and Leopold received the Cross of Honor for Art and Science, First Class. The museum opened on September 21st, 2001 and showcases a number of 19 and 20th century Austrian artists (“Press”).

On the surface, this seems like a harmless story about how a museum might come into existence – a modern benefactor provides a collection and the government provides a space to house it. The United States set up the Smithsonian Institution in a similar fashion after James Smithson’s only heir passed away. A clause went into effect bequeathing Smithson’s entire estate to the United States federal government (“History”). While the reason Smithson, a British citizen, was motivated to leave his considerable estate to the U.S. government remains a mystery, few doubt his intentions were good.

This is not exactly the case with Leopold. Leopold, who acquired much of his collection at auction, is believed to have a significant number of artworks that were stolen after Nazi Germany annexed Austria in 1938 (Prodhan). During the Second World War, Hitler retained works that he deemed appropriate for his Germany and coerced other European countries into purchasing the ‘degenerate’ art by burning almost five thousand works of art (Barker). Works of art were either sold directly by the Nazi regime or stolen by high-ranking officers to sell or display (Barker).  In 2007, “Austria revealed the existence of more than 10,000 paintings and sculptures, hidden since 1945 in monasteries,” says Barker, “London dealers close to the ‘restitution’ business predict that 100 to 150 paintings will come off the walls of German museums in the next 25 years and be restored to the families of their original owners” (Barker).

Thanks to the very public resignation of Tobias Natter in 2013, we know that the question of rightful repatriation and Nazi affiliation is far from over for the Leopold Collection. Leopold himself “resisted restitution claims until his death in 2010” (Prodhan). Natter came on during the period of restitution that followed and oversaw the process of establishing the provenance of the 6,000 pieces in the collection (Prodhan). The Austrian government is inextricably tied up in this process as a result of its purchase of the collection before transferring the works to the foundation (Prodhan).

Former director Natter announced his departure “after some of [the museum’s] most senior staff joined a controversial new foundation associated with Klimt’s illegitimate son… whose works included Nazi propaganda” (Prodhan). There is little reason to question the scrutiny that the Leopold Museum and Foundation are experiencing, but what of the countries that have chosen to exhibit their works?

‘WALLY’ ON THE ROAD: THE PRIME EXAMPLE OF THE LEOPOLD PROBLEM

Selective Context: the Passive Approach to Researching Provenance, Part 2 - ‘Wally’ on the Road - The Prime Example of the Leopold Problem There was no shortage of demand for Schiele, whose works were considered acceptable by Nazi standards. “In...Photo Courtesy the Leopold Collection

There was no shortage of demand for Schiele, whose works were considered acceptable by Nazi standards. “In 1995/1996, Rudolf Leopold exhibited 152 personally selected works by [Egon] Schiele in Tubingen, Dusseldorf, and Hamburg. Additional stops in 1997 included Graz, New York, and Barcelona,” Dobrzynski writes. The most famous of the controversial works shown in this travelling exhibit was a Schiele entitled “Portrait of Wally” (Dobrzynski).

“Wally” is featured prominently in the show in question and several other works shown alongside it in “Egon Schiele: The Leopold Collection” in New York, Barcelona, Tokyo, London, and Germany.

The piece, the exhibit, and the curator were well received; “the Modern feted Dr. Leopold with a black-tie dinner” (Dobryznski). The director of the Museum of Modern Art, Glenn Lowry expressed admiration for the Collection and for Leopold and chairman of the board Ronald Lauder expressed his envy of Leopold’s collection.

In 1998, towards the end of the Collection’s stay in New York, new information about the Bondi exhibit came to light in a New York Times article. The case of ‘Wally,’ in particular, became instantly infamous due, in part, to the publicized primary source documentation about it’s origins. In 1937, a Jewish art dealer named Lea Bondi Jaray was coerced into giving the piece to a Nazi art dealer named Freidrich Welz before fleeing Austria. When she returned to Vienna after the war, she was told the piece was in Austria’s National Gallery. Leopold met with Mrs. Bondi in London and agreed to acquire ‘Wally’ on her behalf in exchange for other, less prominent works by Schiele. “The next thing [she] heard was that [her] picture was … owned by Dr. Leopold (Dobrzynski). In addition to this written account, Mrs. Bondi worked, personally, to reclaim the painting until her death in the 70s (Dobryznski).

The “Wally” controversy has remained infamous thanks to the unprecedented nature of the litigation that followed the New York Times piece. In true American fashion, the exposé launched twelve years of litigation, forming the precedent for dealing with the US ‘Recovery’ doctrine. Ultimately, the case was settled, with Mrs. Bondi’s estate for 19 million dollars (Lufkin).

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).

Diethard Leopold, who took over his father’s role as chair of the museum foundation, is taking the task of provenance research seriously; “according to Diethard, works found to have been looted before and during World War II will be restituted, or suitable compensation will be paid to the rightful heirs to allow the museum to keep them” (Cohan). The elder Leopold died before the “Wally” case went to trial; Diethard agreed to a $19 million settlement that allowed the Museum to keep “Wally.” It is displayed prominently with signage describing the controversial history (Cohan). Diethard had arranged for $35 million in settlements as of late 2012.

While this sounds like good news, art historian Sophie Lillie is skeptical. She agrees that the settlements were the right thing to do, but believes the Leopold’s motives may not be pure. In an interview, “Lillie concedes that Diethard Leopold is a ‘good communicator’ and has removed the museum from ‘the stalemate situation that they were in for many, many, many years,’ she says that restitution is about more than just financial settlements” (Cohan). She may be right. Diethard says that, while he feels the heirs have a moral claim to the works seized from their ancestors, they have no judicial right to the pieces. He believes both have equal moral claim to the pieces, which means he believes his father collected from victims of the War honestly.

Ultimately, the resolution of the “Wally” case is unsatisfactory. The settlement leaves us with no clear answer as to who was the rightful owner of the piece, nor was Bondi’s story, which implicates Leopold in knowingly obtaining art from Jewish refugees, validated.

It seems that general consensus favors Bondi in this case. The United States judicial system has concluded that “Wally” maintains it’s stolen status, despite multiple subsequent owners; that the foreign state in question is not immune; validates the National Stolen Property Act as a tool to prevent trafficking stolen art; that no treaty or doctrine prevents adjudication; and that heirs do maintain standing, among other factors (Lufkin). The sheer case law necessary to determine how to proceed with the trial reflects the confusing and often controversial nature of inter-national law, repatriation, and conflicting legislation. Unless curators in the United States restrict their acquisitions and loans to countries willing to hold their museums, and themselves, accountable for the provenance of their property, and curators begin to take a proactive stance in reviewing the origins and purchase history of every piece they show, the process of restitution from World War II alone will possibly continue in perpetuity. Dr. Ariel Muzikant, president of the Israelite Cultural Organization of Vienna, agrees. According to Muzikant, as of 2008, only 8%-14% of the art looted, confiscated, or otherwise stolen during the war has been restored to their owners or legitimately purchased via settlement (Dachler). There is virtually no information about the response that other nations took to having shown the Leopold Collection of Schiele works, or about what adjustments may have been made, legally, to correct the loophole in Austrian restitution law.

Ultimately, the only course of protection for museum governance, curators, and owners is increased vigilance about the chain of ownership. The sense of urgency in that regard lessens the further away society gets from 1944, but the likelihood of illegitimate art entering the market or being put on exhibit will only increase as complacency increases. An entire generation of people in possession of stolen World War II art is slowly, but surely, passing their pieces along by sale, loan, or bequest. If curators, and private collectors, don’t use this opportunity to truly examine the provenance of everything entering and exiting their collection, they may ultimately lose the opportunity to claim definite legitimacy of their collections altogether.

Citations below the jump.

Sources:

Barker, Godfrey. “The Unfinished Art Business of World War Two.” BBC News. BBC, 4 Nov. 2013. Web. 25 Apr. 2014. <http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-24812078&gt;.

Cohan, William D. “Charting a New Course.” ARTNews. ARTNews, 6 Sept. 2012. Web. 25 Apr. 2014. <http://www.artnews.com/2012/09/06/charting-a-new-course/&gt;.

Dachler, Marlies. “Burden of Proof.” The Vienna Review. Vienna Review, Apr. 2008. Web. 25 Apr. 2014. <http://www.viennareview.net/news/front-page/burden-of-proof&gt;.

Dobrzynski, Judith. “THE ZEALOUS COLLECTOR.” New York Times. New York Times, n.d. Web. 24 Apr. 2014. <http://www.nytimes.com/1997/12/24/arts/zealous-collector-special-report-singular-passion-for-amassing-art-one-way.html&gt;.

“History of the Smithsonian.” Smithsonian Institution. Smithsonian Institution, n.d. Web. 25 Apr. 2014. <http://newsdesk.si.edu/about/history&gt;.

Lufkin, Martha B. G. “Whistling Past the Graveyard Isn’t Enough.” Art Antiquity and Law 7.3 (2002): 207-30. Print.

“Press Dossier.” Leopold Museum. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Apr. 2014. <http://www.leopoldmuseum.org/media/file/41_Allgemeine_Pressemappe_Leopold_ENG.12.pdf&gt;.

Prodhan, Georgina. “Vienna Museum Director Quits in Nazi Looted Art Row.” Reuters. Reuters, n.d. Web. 25 Apr. 2014. <http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/10/30/us-austria-museum-idUSBRE99T12720131030&gt;.