Judge says disputed paintings can return to Austria
"Portrait of Wally," 1912
New York-area families claim art looted by Nazis
May 13, 1998
Web posted at: 9:13 p.m. EDT (0113 GMT)
NEW YORK (CNN) -- A judge has rebuffed an attempt by New York
City's chief prosecutor to block the return to Austria of two
paintings that may have been stolen by the Nazis during World
The paintings by Egon Schiele, one of Austria's greatest
modern painters, were loaned to the Museum of Modern Art in
Manhattan by the Leopold Foundation in Vienna. Two New York
area families claim the art was plundered from their
relatives by the Nazis.
New York District Attorney Robert Morgenthau had issued a
subpoena ordering the museum not to return the paintings to
Vienna until questions over their ownership are settled. But
on Wednesday, New York Supreme Court Judge Laura Drager
quashed that subpoena, ruling that state law protects
borrowed art from government seizure.
Morgenthau quickly announced that he would appeal Drager's
decision, which will delay any return of the paintings for at
least two weeks.
"We believe it to be bad public policy to exempt any stolen
property from the reach of the law," he said. "We do not
believe New York should be a safe haven for stolen art."
Museum: Subpoena would have 'chilling effect'
Museum officials feared Morgenthau's attempt to block return
of the paintings would have a chilling affect on
international art exchanges. Since the subpoena was issued in
January, the owners of two French paintings withdrew them
from a scheduled exhibition at the museum.
"Dead City III," 1911
In her ruling, the judge agreed with the museum's position,
saying any attempt to block the return of the Schiele works
"could only damage the cultural vitality and economic
well-being of the state, without advancing the cause of the
recovery of art looted by the Nazis."
"With its vast array of cultural institutions, New York has a
unique interest in maximizing the possibility of exhibiting
art on loan from other states and around the world," she
Drager also ruled that the paintings didn't have to
physically be in New York in order for the investigation into
their ownership to proceed, which could take up to a year.
Austrians say art bought in good faith
The Leopold Foundation maintains that the paintings -- "Dead
City III" and "Portrait of Wally" -- were acquired in good
faith from their post-war owners by Dr. Rudolf Leopold, a
Viennese eye doctor who sold most of his art collection to
the Austrian government in 1994.
The foundation has proposed letting the questions over
ownership be settled by a fact-finding tribunal -- but only
after the works are returned to Austria.
Claims that the two paintings had been looted by the Nazis
were raised by Rita Reif of New York City and Henry Bondi of
Princeton, New Jersey.
Reif maintains that "Dead City III" was owned by Fritz
Greuenbaum, a Jewish cabaret singer who died at the Dachau
concentration camp in 1940. Reif is his cousin by marriage
and one of his heirs.
However, since the claim was made, documents have surfaced
showing that the painting had gone to Gruenbaum's
sister-in-law, who sold it to a Swiss art dealer in 1956.
Bondi claims that "Portrait of Wally" belonged to his aunt,
Lea Bondi, a Jewish art dealer who was forced to flee Vienna
in 1938. He maintains that his aunt was forced to sell her
art at greatly undervalued prices and that the money was then
seized when she left for England.
Schiele was an expressionist painter who died in 1918. The
paintings in question date from around 1910.
Reuters contributed to this report.