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Egon Schiele’s Portrait of Wally Goes to Trial

After nearly 12 years of fighting, it looks as if the legal dispute over Egon Schiele’s Portrait of Wally is finally going to trial. In a little noticed ruling, U.S. District Judge Loretta A. Preska ordered the trial on Sept. 30.

Schiele-wally.jpgIf you don’t remember what this is all about, I certainly do. It was just about this time in October 1997 that I went to a reception preceding the opening of The Leopold Collection at the Museum of Modern Art, and heard a whisper about a much earlier and long-forgotten claim on Wally. After weeks of investigation — when I learned of and saw documents indicating that Wally had been surrendered under duress by the owner, Leah Bondi Jaray, to the Nazis — I wrote an article about it and many of Leopold’s collecting oddities: “The Zealous Collector” was published on Christmas Eve, 1997 and led, several days later, to the Manhattan D.A.’s subpoena of the painting.

Coming back to you? There’ve been so many twists, turns, claims, counter-claims and digressions since then that I’ve lost track, too.

That’s why it’s good that David D’Arcy, Andrew Shea and Barbara Morgan are producing a documentary on the case — “Portrait of Wally” — with Shea directing. They have interviewed more than 20 art historians, provenance researchers, attorneys (including Robert Morgenthau, who issued the subpoena, and Michael Mukasey, the U.S. District Court Judge in the case until his appointment as U.S. Attorney General in 2007), journalists (including me), and other experts.

They, too, though, are waiting. Shea told me today that they need an outcome of the trial before finishing interviews and wrapping up the film.

The case has been pivotal in the development of restitution. As the documentary-makers have written:

The case has paved the way for the restitution of several other highly publicized stolen works of art including Klimt’s world-famous “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer.” The “Wally” case triggered an investigation by the journalist Hubertus Czernin, who revealed that Austrian museums held thousands of works looted from Jews and never returned. Austria’s parliament passed a law expediting the return of Holocaust loot in Austrian museums. The new law led to a number of new, successful claims by Jewish families.

I knew I had a great story all those years ago. But I had no idea we’d all still be at this impasse so many years later, sadly. I’d like to see the final outcome, too.

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