The Return of “Wally”: The Mona Lisa of the 20th Century

Die Presse (07/26/2010)

Twelve years ago Schiele’s “Portrait of Wally,” held by the Leopold Foundation, was seized in New York on suspicion that it was “stolen.” For 15 million Euros the painting will now be returned. “Justice has been served,” said the heirs.

After more than twelve years of legal dispute, there has been an agreement reached in the case of “Wally.” Egon Schiele’s painting, “Portrait of Wally,” which was part of the holdings of the private Leopold Foundation and seized in 1998 in New York on suspicion of it being “stolen,” will return to Vienna. Shortly before going to trial in Manhattan on July 26 in New York, the parties involved, including the Leopold Foundation and the heirs of art dealer Lea Bondi-Jaray, came to an agreement outside of court. “Wally” is considered a key work among Schiele’s paintings.

As confirmed by the Managing Director of the Vienna Leopold Museum Peter Weinhäupl, the Leopold Museum Private Foundation will pay $19 million (€14.8 million) to the heirs of art dealer Lea Bondi-Jaray: “We are happy to announce that the painting, “Wally” will return to Austria.

Raiffeisen Assumes the Prepayment 

The interim financing of the $19 million will be taken over by the Raiffeisen Landesbank of Vienna-Lower Austria in exchange for five of Schiele’s gouache. Which painting was to be sold was determined by art collector Rudolf Leopold himself who recently died. “In a process of days and weeks” he selected the paintings for sale, the final list of which will be compiled by the foundation’s board of directors. An auction is, however, not under consideration.

In the past there were numerous attempts at coming to an agreement, said Diethard Leopold; however, the financial bids made to the foundation were insufficient. The accumulated lawyers’ costs involved three to three and one-half million Euros.

“The Mona Lisa of the 20th Century”

Diethard Leopold finds the $ 19 million, which will be issued by the bank as soon as the painting has been also physically transferred, to be proportionate to the value of the painting since “Wally” has become one of the well known paintings. In fact, “there are also people who say that the painting is the ‘Mona Lisa’ of the 20th century. They said that also about Klimt’s ‘Adele.’

The paintings, “Adele Bloch-Bauer I,” also known as the “Golden Adele,” are also involved in a legal dispute. The painting was restituted in 2006 to Maria Altmann, the heiress of Ferdinand Block-Bauer and sold the same year for $ 135 million (€ 106.7 million). The Republic of Austria abstained from the option to acquire it.

Top Record for an Auctioned Painting: One Hundred Million 

Rudolf Leopold fought his entire life to regain the Schiele painting. “The painting would not be the same without it,” said Weinhäupl when explaining the obstinacy behind the attempt to retrieve it.

Elisabeth Leopold emphasized not only the aspect of historical art but also the emotional significance of the painting for the Leopold Collection (“We also loved it dearly!”) and regretted that one couldn’t have dealt with Lea Bondy-Jaray herself directly. “The generation, to whom it was really meaningful, has died.”

“Past Injustice Has Finally Been Acknowledged”

According to a blog in the New York Times, the heirs of Lea Bondi-Jarray commented that “justice has been served.” “After more than seventy years, the wrongs suffered by Lea Bondi-Jaray are at last being acknowledged, and to some degree, corrected.” Before the painting returns to Vienna, it will be exhibited at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York until August 18, 2010.