Director: Andrew Shea
By Marilyn Ferdinand
There is little in the world like the passion of the collector. Film history would be much different if it were not for this peculiarly obsessed group of people rescuing cans of film and squirreling them away for a rainy day. Films that were thought lost have now been found, either through the good auspices of professional collectors (aka, archives) or the greedy hoarding of individuals who like the idea that they have something no one else does (see my review of Beyond the Rocks  for more on this). Thus is the double-edged sword of collecting—preservation and the possessiveness of ownership.
Let it not be said that only individuals can behave badly when it comes to collecting. Indeed, massive pilfering of everything from flowers to entire building facades has led to the collections many of us enjoy at museums, conservatories, and libraries. Here in Chicago, many people enjoy gawking at the parts of famous structures Col. Robert McCormick swiped and embedded in the exterior of the Tribune Tower—if you can’t actually visit Westminster Abbey or the Parthenon, this, I guess, is the next best thing.
In recent decades, some countries that have had many of their priceless treasures removed through the spoils of war and collectors’ lust have taken steps to retrieve them. For a look at recent, large-scale plundering, I recommend the documentary The Rape of Europa (2006). That film explicates, among other things, the attempt of a Jewish family to reclaim a stolen painting by Austrian artist Gustav Klimt. Interestingly, the film under consideration here, Portrait of Wally, details another cause célèbre in the art world involving Klimt’s protégé Egon Schiele.
Wally Neuzil was Schiele’s mistress and the subject of many of his works. The 1912 painting in question, titled “Portrait of Wally,” is a companion piece to a self-portrait Schiele did. Unlike his sexually graphic works, these two paintings reflect a certain romanticism and emotional intimacy that make them stand-outs. That is why Austrian art dealer Lea Bondi, who sold the works of Schiele and other cutting-edge artists and was herself painted by many of them, purchased the painting for her personal collection. Shortly after Nazi Germany annexed Austria in 1938, Bondi, a Jew, had her business confiscated and “Aryanized” by Friedrich Welz. Welz also went into Bondi’s home and coerced her into giving him “Portrait of Wally.” Bondi escaped from Austria and eventually settled in London.
After the war, the art in Welz’s possession, including a collection of Schiele’s works Welz forced Dr. Heinrich Rieger to sell to him before Rieger was shipped off to die in a concentration camp, was recovered by American troops and turned over to the Austrian government. The government placed them in the permanent collection of the Belvedere, Austria’s National Gallery; “Portrait of Wally” was among the paintings, erroneously catalogued as part of the Rieger collection. In 1946, Bondi recovered her gallery and learned from Welz that the Belvedere had the painting. After failing to reclaim the painting on her own, she turned to noted Schiele collector and scholar Rudolph Leopold in 1953 to intercede on her behalf. Instead, Leopold, who owned the companion self-portrait, traded one of his Schieles for “Portrait of Wally.”
So Lea Bondi was screwed over by another Austrian and never saw her painting again—so what else is new? Well, actually, the story takes a unique and even more problematic turn. In 1998, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMa) arranged a special exhibition of the Schiele collection from the Leopold Museum in Vienna, including “Portrait of Wally.” When some of Bondi’s relatives saw the painting, they sought relief. In an extraordinary move, New York County District Attorney Robert Morgenthau sought to seize this and another Schiele as stolen art; eventually, the paintings were held in the United States under federal law, and the art world exploded in fear of the repercussions.
Portrait of Wally is a disturbing film for what it says about the guardians of culture. Despite a very clear trail of ownership—what viewers of Antiques Roadshow have learned is the all-important provenance of an object—running through Bondi’s correspondence, Welz’s writings, and a 1930s catalog of Schiele’s works by Otto Kallir, it seems clear that the Belvedere misidentified the painting as a drawing titled “Portrait of a Woman,” dubiously called a clerical error that upon discovery they took no pains to correct, and that Leopold erased Bondi from the provenance of the work in his definitive catalog of Schiele’s works to quash her persistent claims of ownership. The way the film documents the trail of ownership and falsification is a fine example why we all should care about and demand accurate documentation in the books, newspapers, websites, and other resources we consume.
What is even more disturbing is how museums across the United States stood with MoMA in fighting Morgenthau, claiming that if museums cannot guarantee the safe return of works on loan, it will have a chilling effect on the cultural education of the American people. This argument, on its face, seems not only sensible, but also altruistic—but only if the works on loan actually belong to the lender. Since the history of art is also the history of theft, what museum directors are really saying is that if they cannot be free to look the other way once in a while, they won’t be able to borrow collections they covet for their own walls. In essence, the acquisitive and exclusive mindset of the fanatical collector is part of a museum director’s job description.
Indeed, more scrutiny could send some works underground, perhaps never to be seen in public again—a real danger, but certainly a necessary trade-off in the interests of justice. Given the enormous prices pieces by Schiele and other artists command, collectors of ill-got goods are robbing families of their legitimate legacy. The fight Bondi’s heirs put up to regain “Portrait of Wally” was smeared as motivated by pure greed (another dig at its Jewish owner, perhaps?), but what then about Leopold, MoMA, and the rest of the art community that stood with them? Is their solidarity nothing more than collectors’ greed and a ploy to protect their own revenue streams from donors, museum attendees, and resale to acquire additional works?
The concept of ownership is one that has always given me trouble. When does a privately collected painting—or anything privately owned, like the land in last year’s film The Descendants—pass the threshold from personal pleasure to public interest? When corporate owners place onerous restrictions and prices on the use of their images and sounds, for example, charging independent animator Nina Paley $50,000 to use music they had shown no interest in making available, it seems that the ownership protections of current copyright laws are unnecessarily obstructionist. On the other hand, when a priceless painting is stolen and the rightful owner is systematically kept from reclaiming her property—even when that property is freely available for viewing in the public interest—it seems wrong. Should eminent domain or a statute of limitations apply to stolen art? I don’t have the answer. But this well-rounded documentary convinces me that at least in this case, Lea Bondi should not have died without her “Portrait of Wally” hanging in her home.