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Judge says disputed paintings can return to Austria

Portrait of Wally
"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 War II.

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
"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 said.

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.

 
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