“Portrait of Wally”, Egon Schiele’s tender picture of his mistress, Walburga (“Wally”) Neuzil, is the pride of the Leopold Museum in Vienna. But for 13 years the painting was locked up in New York, caught in a legal battle between the Austrian museum and the Jewish family from whom the Nazis seized the painting in 1939.
The documentary PORTRAIT OF WALLY traces the history of this iconic image – from Schiele’s gesture of affection toward his young lover, to the theft of the painting from Lea Bondi, a Jewish art dealer fleeing Vienna for her life, to the post-war confusion and subterfuge that evoke THE THIRD MAN, to the surprise resurfacing of “Wally” on loan to the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan in 1997.
In 1997, when the heirs of art dealer Lea Bondi asked MoMA to hold the painting in New York, MoMA and the Leopold Museum dug in their heels and refused. District Attorney Robert Morgenthau issued a subpoena and launched a criminal investigation. A 13-year battle in court followed, tracking the course of a Holocaust property crime and reopening the wounds of one of the century’s worst tragedies – all at a time when the prices of Egon Schiele’s works rose faster than those of any painter on the art market.
Schiele collector Ronald Lauder found himself caught between several loyalties – he was chairman of MoMA and the founder of the Commission for Art Recovery, an organization committed to returning looted art to the Jews who lost it to the Nazis. Lauder sided with the Museum, and against the Jewish family. So did all the museums in New York – even the Jewish Museum.
The “Wally” case brought the story of Nazi art loot into the open, eventually forcing museums in Europe and the U.S. to search their own collections for suspect objects. Many museums ended up returning art to Jewish families who had abandoned hope until “Wally” showed that institutions could be held accountable for holding property stolen during the Holocaust. The case was resolved in dramatic fashion in the summer of 2010, but only after the history of Schiele’s extraordinary painting was unearthed to revisit the crimes of the Holocaust and to witness the reluctance of major institutions in Europe and New York to send the “last prisoners of war” back to their families.
PORTRAIT OF WALLY the documentary takes you on that journey. The 13-year war over “Wally” was more than a dispute over property stolen from Jews during the Holocaust. It was a battle over history and memory. This time, the truth won.