Image courtesy of Seventh Arts Releasing. All rights reserved.
On May 2, just a few weeks ago, an unnamed telephone bidder promised Sotheby's $119,922,500 for the 1895 version of Edvard Munch's painting The Scream, thus making it the most expensive piece of art ever sold at auction. Rumor has it that The Scream was purchased by the Royal Family of Qatar, but as far as I know that has yet to be confirmed. Regardless, whoever has it now has certainly paid a pretty penny for it.
I have no idea how a "pastel on cardboard" (one of four renderings of the same subject) came to command such a high price, but news of it was certainly on my mind when I screened the new documentary Portrait of Wally soon after.
Portrait of Wally is the astonishing story of a small painting created by Viennese artist Egon Schiele in 1912, and how it led, a full century later, to a landmark case in Holocaust Restitution.
Directed by Andrew Shea, Portrait of Wally is based on interviews and analyses Shea compiled with his friend, journalist David D'Arcy. Shea's wife Melissa Shea served as the film's editor, and Lewanne Jones served as Research Director/Archival Producer for the film's extensive historical footage. Together this team tells a riveting tale in a dense and fact-packed 90 minutes. Either you'll be hooked or you won't, but if you are, then you might find yourself on Google for hours afterwards (like I was), sorting through the huge implications hinted at—but never resolved—as the story unfolds.
Since I want you to see Portrait of Wally for yourself, I won't give you too many details, but here's a rough chronology:
- Portrait of Wally was originally purchased (from Schiele himself) by a Jewish gallery owner named Lea Bondi. She placed Wally on a wall in her own home (in Vienna) and considered it private property.
- In 1938, the contents of Bondi's gallery as well as many of her personal possessions (including Wally) were forcibly appropriated by the Nazis after the Anschluss that "reunified" Austria and Germany. Bondi and her husband fled to London.
- In 1945, the American Army "returned" Wally to the Austrian government, and they cataloged it with the possessions of a Jewish man who had died in Theresienstadt. Bondi then appealed to a well-connected Austrian named Rudolf Leopold, but instead of helping Bondi, Leopold, an ophthalmologist with a passion for art, acquired Wally for his own collection.
- In 1997, long after Bondi's death, Wally resurfaced in Manhattan as part of a traveling exhibition of Austrian art on loan to Museum of Modern Art. Members of Bondi's family recognized it immediately, and media attention quickly led to a criminal investigation.
- Thirteen years later, in 2010, Leopold's heirs finally settled with Bondi's heirs, and Wally returned to Vienna after a public ceremony at the Museum of Jewish History in New York.
This brief overview barely hints at a story brought vividly to life by a huge array of talking heads: art curators and dealers, government investigators and lawyers, historians and journalists all add their insights.
If you're a film buff and you've seen Carol Reed's 1949 classic The Third Man (in which Orson Wells and Joseph Cotten act out a script by Graham Greene set in post-WWII Vienna), then my chronology should call forth familiar zither music. The dark machinations Shea describes have the same desperate air of duplicity, greed, and naked self-interest. After a while it's hard not to hiss whenever Rudolf Leopold appears on screen. Again and again, Leopold and his supporters imply that Bondi's Jewish heirs are "only in it for the money," but it is actually Leopold who becomes fabulously wealthy by obscuring well-known provenance to ruthlessly extend his holdings.
In the end, the Bondi family is championed by ICE (the Department of Homeland Security's "Immigration and Customs Enforcement" team). Because the American Army gave Wally to the Austrian government in good faith in 1945, the American government asserts its responsibility for determining ownership in 2010, and American judges agree.
The official July 2010 Press Release quotes ICE Director John T. Morton as follows: "Thanks to the intrepid investigative work of ICE agents in our New York office and the years of unwavering legal work by the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, the heirs of an art dealer robbed of this exquisite painting by the Nazis will be compensated. We are proud that this case has caused those who deal in art to be extremely vigilant about works caught up in the Holocaust and to join us in trying to rectify the past."
Back in Vienna with her prize at long last, Leopold's widow Elisabeth attempts to be gracious, but her invocation of "reconciliation, respect, and mutual tolerance" is hollow and condescending. And yet the ending is bittersweet. When Elisabeth says that this final placement is "a very nice 'thank you' for all that she [Valerie 'Wally' Neuzil] has done for him [Egon Schiele]," I find I agree with her. Great art is inherently timeless, and I have to admit that once Wally is actually hung in the Leopold Museum-alongside one of Egon Schiele's self-portraits-my heart tells me she is finally "home."
Elisabeth Leopold with Wally in Vienna. Photo courtesy of Seventh Arts Releasing. All rights reserved.
Valerie 'Wally' Neuzil died some time during WWI and Egon Schiele died soon afterwards. Lea Bondi died in 1969 and Rudolf Leopold died in 2010. Soon Elisabeth Leopold will join him, and Andre Bondi, Ron Lauder, and Glenn Lowry will all be gone too. So who actually owns great art in the end anyway?
In Isabel Coixet's lovely 2008 film Elegy, screenwriter Nicholas Meyer embedded a scene towards the end that was not in Philip Roth's source novel The Dying Animal.
Radio host "David Kepesh" (Ben Kingsley) is interviewing author "Suzan Reese" (Chelah Horsdal).
Suzan Reese: "The people who buy these paintings, they think they own the pictures… but in reality the pictures own them."
David Kepesh: "The pictures own them. They're merely custodians for a period of time. They're free to admire it. They're free to worship it if they like."
Suzan Reese: "In theory you could purchase the Great Pyramid…"
David Kepesh: "I take your point, but at the end of the day, the pyramid will still be around, and you'd be…"
Suzan Reese: "With the Pharaohs."
Portrait of Wally opened to rave reviews at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 28 and is now spreading to art houses all around the world. It will play at our Gene Siskel Film Center in the Loop from Friday June 15 through Thursday June 21. For more information, visit: http://www.siskelfilmcenter.org/PortraitOfWally.
Elegy is available on DVD. The scene described above begins in the middle of chapter 22 (120:50).