Art as a Passion – On the Death of Private Collector Rudolf Leopold

Federal Chancellery (07/05/2010)

Austria's most important private collector and director of the Leopold Museum at the Museums-Quartier (MQ) in Vienna, Rudolf Leopold, died at age 85 at a hospital in Vienna on June 28, 2010.

Rudolf Leopold was born in Vienna in 1925. In 1953 he earned his medical degree. During his medical studies, he used to attend art history lectures and collected paintings and art objects – predominantly by the almost forgotten Expressionist painter at the time, Egon Schiele.

Leopold presented an exhibition on modern Austrian art in Amsterdam in 1955. Attracting a lot of attention, the exhibition made Schiele known to a larger audience. Following this success, Leopold organized other Schiele exhibitions in Innsbruck, London and New York.

In 1972 Rudolf Leopold published a comprehensive monograph as a critical catalogue raisonné accurately documenting Schiele’s works. From 1989 to 1991 the exhibition, “Egon Schiele and his Time" was successfully presented in Zurich, Vienna, Munich, Wuppertal and London. Numerous other international exhibitions followed. Schiele's works could be admired also at the Expo 2000 in Hannover.

With the support of the Republic of Austria and the Austrian National Bank, Rudolf Leopold incorporated his collection into the Leopold Museum Private Foundation, comprising about 5,300 works of art. Leopold received about one third of the estimated value of his collection and became director for life of the museum. In 2001 the Leopold Museum was opened at MQ. Since then, the valuable private collection of Austrian classical modernism has been presented as a permanent exhibition.

In 1997 Rudolf Leopold was awarded the Austrian Cross of Honour for Science and Art in recognition of his achievements.

The opening of the museum marked the beginning of discussions on "Aryanized" works of art contained in the collection. The two Schiele works, "Bildnis Wally" ("Portrait of Wally") – former owner: Lea Bondi-Jaray – and “Tote Stadt III (“Dead City III“) – former owner: Fritz Grünbaum – were confiscated in New York in 1998. The latter work was returned to the museum in 1999 as the plaintiffs were not the legitimate heirs of Fritz Grünbaum.

In 2000 a Canadian citizen submitted a legal claim for restitution of the painting, "Der Dengler" ("The Scythe Sharpener"), by Albin Egger-Lienz. However, the case was dismissed in all stages of appeal and in 2003 by the Supreme Court in Vienna.

Finally, there is the unsettled claim submitted by the heirs of Jenny Steiner for restitution of the Schiele painting, "Häuser am Meer" ("Houses on the Sea").

The Leopold Museum is the only Austrian museum making its provenance database accessible via the Internet, but the provenance stated is partly questionable. The collection contains numerous works of art of dubious provenance that originally belonged to persons persecuted by the NS regime: Oskar Reichel, Fritz Grünbaum, Heinrich Rieger, Karl Mayländer, Jenny Steiner and others.

As a private foundation, the Leopold Museum is not subject to the Restitution Act (Federal Law Gazette 181/1998), even though the case "Wally" (confiscation of the painting from the Leopold collection in New York in 1998) was the reason for adopting this law and stirred discussion. The Restitution Act authorizes the federal minister to restitute works of art held by the federal museums.

The court case involving "Portrait of Wally" has been pending for ten years. In 2008 a scandal erupted around an Albin Egger Lienz exhibition, whereby fourteen paintings – including twelve exhibits on loan from different Austrian museums – were presented that were suspected of having been looted during the NS period.

The Leopold Museum Private Foundation agreed to the proposal of the Federal Ministry of Education, Art and Culture to establish two independent provenance researchers at the museum who are paid by the Republic of Austria. On December 21, 2009, the researchers presented eleven reports on seventeen various works of art.

Federal Chancellor Werner Faymann stated on the death of Rudolf Leopold that the discussions on the provenance of some works would be continued and come to a dignified end. But it was also necessary to keep a sense of proportion and to recognize the lifetime achievements of Rudolf Leopold: "A man passed away who made us familiar with Viennese Modernism and, in particular, the works of Egon Schiele. His passion for art and his unwavering eye provided us with a private art collection which today is accessible to the general public. Even though the authorized group of experts were very cautious in judging the works by Schiele, Klimt, Kokoschka or Kubin for many years, Rudolf Leopold’s opinion ultimately prevailed – thanks to numerous exhibitions, significant research and his personal perseverance."

Minister of Culture Claudia Schmied also paid tribute to Rudolf Leopold as "someone who was obsessed in the best sense of the word, someone who – with a clear understanding of art movements and Zeitgeist – observed, recognized and shaped the development of the art market throughout the past few decades. As the director of' 'his' Leopold Museum, "he was "always firmly committed to making the treasures of Austria’s largest private art collection accessible to a wide audience."

Albertina Director Klaus Albrecht Schröder praised the deceased collector for his "unerring sense of quality, which never failed when judging artists and works of art that were not represented in his collection." Moreover, we also owe it to Rudolf Leopold that today Richard Gerstl's work is held in high esteem.