An offer to allow an international tribunal to determine the ownership of two paintings possibly looted by the Nazis was placed in limbo this week after Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau issued a subpoena keeping them here.
The paintings, by turn-of-the-century Austrian Expressionist Egon Schiele, were to be shipped to Spain last week after completing a three-month exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art. But two families contacted the museum two weeks ago claiming that they were the heirs of the paintings’ rightful owners and asked the museum to keep the paintings here until their ownership could be verified. When the museum refused, Morgenthau entered the case and issued the subpoena to have a grand jury investigate their ownership.
The paintings, which were reportedly valued at between $7.4 million and $9 million, were bought in 1994 by the Leopold Foundation, which is funded by the Austrian government. A member of its board, Klaus Schroeder, told The Jewish Week in a phone interview from Vienna that the foundation was ready to turn the matter over to an internationally constituted fact-finding tribunal to establish the respective rights of the parties. He said the Commission for Art Recovery of the World Jewish Congress would be asked to help select the members of the tribunal.
Its director, Constance Lowenthal, agreed to the proposal, telling The Jewish Week that if “the parties want me to try, I will do my utmost to put together a panel and procedures that will satisfy all of those who will be bound by it.”
But Stephen Harnik, a lawyer in New York representing the foundation, said he was not certain whether the tribunal offer was still viable because of the intervention of Morgenthau.
Rita Reif of Manhattan, who claims she is heir to one of Schiele’s works, “Dead City,” said she supported the idea of the tribunal in principle but wanted to know details before agreeing.
“We have said we want a fair hearing,” she said.
The United States, Reif said, considers a “break in title,” in which the sale is not recorded, “to constitute an illegal transfer of the art” and that she would like the tribunal to use the same criteria. She said she is the heir of Fritz Grunbaum, a Jewish collector who died in Dachau in 1940 or 1941 and whose ownership of “Dead City” was documented in 1930 by a Vienna art dealer, Otto Kallir.
Had Grunbaum sold the painting, she said, “Kallir would have known it and documented it.” He did not, Reif said.
“One knows of widespread plundering of art works by the Nazis,” she pointed out. “We found printed in a book a few years ago the statement that the Grunberg apartment in Vienna was Arianized [by the Nazis] and that his library and his extensive art collection were forcibly sold off for 200 Reichsmarks to an unnamed Viennese antique dealer in the late ‘30s.”
The family of Lea Bondi Jaray is claiming ownership of the second painting, “Portrait of Wally,” saying that Jaray was compelled by a Nazi art dealer to leave it in Vienna when she fled the city in 1938.
Elizabeth Addison, deputy director for marketing and communications at MoMA, said the two paintings were part of a larger exhibit of 150 works, virtually all of them by Schiele. She said the exhibit opened here three months ago after touring Europe since 1995.
“What we are baffled by is why we did not hear from them as soon as the show opened on Oct. 12?” she said, adding that “Dead City” was exhibited at the Guggenheim Museum in 1965 and no claims were raised at that time.
Reif said she never pursued the matter because until recently she did not know Grunberg had owned this painting. The Bondi family said it has tried for years to regain ownership of “Portrait of Wally.”
Reps. Charles Schumer (D-Brooklyn) and Nita Lowey (D-Westchester) announced they are working on a bill that would codify and nationalize some existing standards for buying and selling works of art, thus curtailing transactions involving stolen art.