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Portrait of Wally Neuzil
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Portrait of Wally by Egon Schiele may not look like it could dictate the course of art restitution cases for the rest of history, but it did.

Let’s start from the beginning though. This portrait of Schiele’s longtime mistress, Walburga “Wally” Neuzil, was created in 1912 alongside a self portrait of Schiele, Self Portrait with Physalis. Egon and Wally led a rather bohemian lifestyle full of art, nudity, and in the eyes of the Viennese, pornography. Egon was arrested under allegations that he had seduced and abducted a minor. After 21 days in jail, the charges of abduction were dropped but the court found him guilty of displaying pornographic works that were accessible to children, for which he served an additional three days. After imprisonment, things changed and Schiele decided to get married, but not to Wally. He wanted to marry advantageously, and keep Wally on the sidelines. But when Schiele explained to Wally that he was going to marry the middle-class Edith Harms but they could still ya know… hang out, Wally bailed because nobody puts Wally in a corner. The two never saw each other again and all that remains of their relationship is Schiele’s Self Portrait with Physalis and Portrait of Wally. The paintings now hang together in the Leopold Museum... but only after years of fierce lawsuits.

The painting originally belonged to Jewish Viennese gallerist Lea Bondi. Though she owned a gallery with many Schieles, Portrait of Wally was not a part of it. It was part of her private collection in her apartment. In 1939, Bondi’s gallery was confiscated by Friedrich Welz, a high-ranking Nazi, who wanted to aryanize it. He then went to her home and tried to convince her to give him Portrait of Wally. She continued to protest until her husband said that she should just give it to him, as they were likely fleeing for London the next day. So she relented and they fled to London Wally-less. After the war, Lea decided that she wanted her gallery, her paintings, and especially Portrait of Wally back. She went to file a retribution case but found that, because Welz had done some renovations to her gallery, she actually owed him money, instead of the other way around because that makes a lot of sense…

Meanwhile Portrait of Wally was mistakenly put in the Belvedere, because they thought it was part of the collection of Dr. Rieger, a collector and Austrian Jew who died with his family in a concentration camp. Lea Bondi, who was still living in London at this time, met with Rudolf Leopold, the founder of the Leopold Museum and an obsessive fan of Egon Schiele to ask him to help her get Portrait of Wally back. In exchange she would help him acquire more Schiele drawings. It was a deal, until Leopold went to the Belvedere and took Portrait of Wally for himself in exchange for another Schiele. Wtf…

Then one fateful day in 1997, Portrait of Wally was in New York at an exhibition at MoMA. Lea Bondi’s heirs wrote a letter to MoMA asking for their painting back. MoMA said they they were under a contractual agreement to return the piece to the Leopold Museum. But then the white knight, the New York County District Attorney, issued a subpoena prohibiting its return to Vienna. This move would affect the future of art lending perhaps forever, because who’s going to lend work when there is a chance you might not get it back? New York museums were pissed and begged the DA to just give it back, but no such luck. The painting was tied up in lawsuits for 12 years before a settlement was reached, a process which was the focus of the documentary Portrait of Wally. By the time the settlement was reached both Lea Bondi and Rudolf Leopold were dead. The Leopold Museum paid the Bondi heirs $19 million and Portrait of Wally remains with Schiele’s Self Portrait with Physalis in the Leopold Museum to this day. The only indication of the strife that had occurred is a plaque explaining the painting’s real provenance, which is sort of like justice, but not quite.

Sources

Sources

  1. Dobrzynski, Judith. "Modern Is Urged To Play Solomon In Paintings Dispute." Nytimes.com. N.p., 1998. Web. 10 May 2018.
  2. Jones, Jonathan. "How Egon Schiele Combined High Art And Pornography." the Guardian. N.p., 2003. Web. 10 May 2018.
  3. Micchelli, Thomas. "The Essential Egon Schiele." Hyperallergic. N.p., 2017. Web. 10 May 2018.
  4. "Portrait Of Wally – United States And Estate Of Lea Bondi And Leopold Museum — Centre Du Droit De L'art." Plone.unige.ch. Web. 10 May 2018.
  5. Shea, Andrew. Portrait Of Wally. New York: Gravitas Ventures, 2013. film.