Leopold Museum Private Foundation website (www. leopoldmuseum.org)
Statement by the Leopold Museum Private Foundation on the successful conclusion of settlement negotiations
On July 29, 2010, settlement was reached between the Leopold Museum Private Foundation (LMPF) and the Estate of Lea Bondi-Jaray with regard to the painting, “Portrait of Wally,” by Egon Schiele. According this arrangement, the Foundation will pay nineteen million dollars and have the portrait returned. As it is widely known, the painting had been seized by a New York district court following an exhibition of LMPF-owned works at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in 1998. The more than twelve years since that time have seen the work embroiled in a legal battle. Now, the painting will be returning to the Leopold Museum, where it forms a triptych of sorts with Schiele’s “Self-portrait with Lampion Fruit” and the similarly iconic work, “Cardinal and Nun.”
In any event, collector and foundation founder Rudolf Leopold viewed the painting both as an independent work and as part of this secular triptych, and the fact that Leopold did not live to see Wally finally return to his museum adds an additional bitter aspect to this painting's long history.
The settlement by LMPF with the Estate of Lea Bondi-Jaray will surely not remain a unique, exceptional case, but shall rather set a certain precedent for future actions.Each side, LMPF and the heirs of Bondi-Jaray, was and remains of the opinion that it would have eventually won the lawsuit—not today, not tomorrow, but only after an arduous procedure which would have dragged on for several more years. This prospect would have been unbearably costly for both sides in terms of time and financial resources. Dr. Leopold always believed himself to be in the right regarding this case, and up to his final moment, he remained optimistic that justice would ultimately prevail.
Those who give close study to the relevant history, documentation and witness testimony will thoroughly understand the way in which the collector acted, arriving at the conclusion that he had acquired the work in justifiably good faith.
At the same time, Rudolf Leopold was aware that his strength and health were failing. He desired to see the painting returned to Vienna during his own lifetime, and therefore initiated settlement negotiations of his own accord.
Today, I would like to once again call attention to the fact that Rudolf Leopold had desired a compromise settlement from the very beginning. In 1998, such a settlement would have cost around two million dollars—as signaled to him at the time by Ronald Lauder. But the Austrian Federal Government’s representation on the board of the LMPS urged Leopold to grant his permission to engage in the legal battle that ensued—a battle during which court and legal fees were to consume over twice the original compensation sum. The other side had an easier time of it: their role in the proceedings was assumed for them by the U.S. Government.
The present settlement is also about recognizing and appreciating the positions and achievements on each side. It acknowledges and expresses empathy for the tragic history of Jews in Austria during the twentieth century, while also recognizing the achievements of the private collector and worldwide Schiele promoter.
As part of the settlement negotiations, the two sides—the LMPS and the group of heirs—have arrived at a mutual formulation of the painting’s ownership history. This is a rather important point in such settlements, resulting in positive long-term effects. This mutually formulated history will appear in writing next to the painting when it is once again displayed in Vienna.
The financial aspect—nineteen million US dollars—cannot be allowed to overshadow the aspect of mutuality described above. Even so, the LMPS has gone to the absolute limits of its financial possibilities in settling this case. The fact that the Republic of Austria has so far refrained from participating in this settlement remains a discordant note and will certainly affect the relationship of the LMPF with the Austrian Federal Government for some time to come.
The Austrian Federal Government contributed no more than eighty million Euros to the Foundation—this amounts to around one tenth of its present-day value, or—put differently—the value of just one of those several Leopold Collection artworks which are of central significance to art history. Therefore, it would have been immanently appropriate for the Federal Government to bear some of the costs of the legal battle which was, after all, initiated upon its explicit recommendation. Regardless of this unfortunate fact, the LMPF was willing to make this settlement payment alone, exclusively from its own funds. This should also be publicly stated and acknowledged.
Therefore, one cannot stress often enough that the LMPS has undertaken its efforts towards settlement of cases of wrongfully expropriated Jewish property voluntarily and upon the basis on its own deliberations and decisions. In a purely legal sense, the LMPF is not obligated to take action; in fact, the Foundation’s statues make it exceptionally difficult to enter into such a settlement.
Even so, the LMPS shall act out of its moral responsibility to do justice to the history of Austria and of its Jewish citizens, and shall take steps to reach settlements that satisfy the claims and expectations of both sides.
At the same time, the LMPF views it as its duty to ensure for the Republic of Austria that important artworks remain accessible to the general public.
In this double responsibility—regarding both history and the preservation of artworks for public edification—the LMPF is deliberately embarking upon a path that represents a new one for Austrian private foundations. In contrast to Austria’s Federal Museums, it can act voluntarily and autonomously, and it will not forego this opportunity to act in a free and self-responsible manner. The basis for our action shall be the quest for historical truth and societal responsibility, rather than the pursuit of particular interests.