Vienna Psychotherapist Tackles Nazi-Era Art Claims at Museum
Diethard Leopold, a Viennese psychotherapist whose father founded the Leopold Museum, is aiming to settle all outstanding Nazi-era claims for art in its collection within a year.
Leopold, who is 54, was appointed to the board of the museum’s foundation by his father in June, days before Rudolf Leopold’s death. In July, the museum agreed to pay $19 million to the heirs of the Jewish art dealer Lea Bondi Jaray to settle a decades-long dispute over Egon Schiele’s portrait of his lover Wally, stolen by the Nazis in the 1930s.
“The museum is striving to solve these problems in a speedy, effective, comprehensive and, most of all, amicable manner,” Leopold said over coffee in the museum cafe yesterday. “I do feel that more weight should have been put behind these efforts in the past. A solution within the coming year is a realistic option. I don’t think it should take longer.”
The Leopold Museum owns 44 Schiele paintings and 180 works on paper, the biggest collection of the artist worldwide. During Rudolf Leopold’s lifetime -- he died on June 29 at the age of 85 -- the museum argued that as a private foundation, it was not subject to Austria’s restitution law, which only applies to federal government museums. It is planning to sell some of the Schiele works on paper to pay for the “Wally” purchase.
Its failure to resolve claims by Nazi victims and their heirs led to protests by groups such as the Israelitische Kultusgemeinde Wien, which hung posters and stuck tape around the museum declaring it an “art crime scene” in 2008.
“The last 10 years have damaged the reputation of the museum,” said the bespectacled Leopold, who has bushy eyebrows and wears an open-necked shirt and suit. “Under Austrian law, the Leopold Museum is unambiguously the owner of these works. But I do not believe that we should insist on our legal prerogative and say that is the end of the story.
“We are very much aware that not all of the crimes that were committed in the Nazi era have been addressed so far,” Leopold said. “We are also aware that in those cases where it is in our power to set the record straight, speedy and effective solutions are required. In principle we now want to speak to the heirs directly -- I think that is the most effective way.”
Leopold said he has grasped the initiative himself, approaching the heirs. An Austrian government panel found that three paintings in the museum’s collection by Anton Romako should be returned to the heir of Oskar Reichel, one of Vienna’s most important prewar collectors.
Talks With Heiress
“There is an heiress, a private person who lives in Vienna,” Leopold said. “I wrote to her and she phoned back and we met up. I just didn’t want to wait any longer. The contact was positive. I am optimistic we will come to a solution soon.”
One of the most high-profile outstanding restitution cases involves Schiele’s “Houses by the Sea,” which belonged to Jenny Steiner, whose art collection was seized by the Gestapo. Leopold said he has proposed selling the painting at auction and dividing the revenue according to an agreed percentage between the heirs and the museum.
“Or we can restitute it and simultaneously buy it back for a proportion of the value that is agreed upon beforehand,” Leopold said. “I am more in favor of the second solution as we then know the painting would stay on public view. It will be difficult to unite the heirs in a common approach.”
“Wally” returns to Vienna at the end of this week and the Leopold Museum will stage a special exhibition focusing on the history of Schiele and his muse, who volunteered as a nurse in World War I and died in Croatia. The painting will be displayed with a notice explaining its provenance, a text agreed by the museum and the heirs.
Leopold said he’s confident that “Wally” is worth the $19 million the museum will pay. The foundation’s sale of works to pay for it will probably be at an international auction in the next three years, Leopold said. Rudolf Leopold drew up a list of the works that could be sold before his death.
“The price was certainly a bit higher because my father absolutely wanted the painting back,” he said. “But there are many times over the years when everyone said my father paid too much for an artwork and that he was crazy, then 10 years later, they say it was cheap. This could happen with ‘Wally’ too.”
Leopold estimates that only about 1 percent of the museum’s artworks come from Jewish prewar collections, so not more than 50 works. He aims to complete provenance research on those paintings by the end of the year.
“It has taken a long time to do the work so far,” he said. “If we put it on track now, we can do it.”
Once the claims are resolved, Leopold said he wants to hold an exhibition about Viennese prewar collections, examining the fate of their owners and the artworks.
The psychologist wrote a book about his father’s passion for collecting that was published in 2008. He laughed when asked whether he has a similar obsession.
“My obsession is in another area -- I do Japanese archery,” he said. “It is an art, very subtle and existential. It gives me the strength and balance to deal with this sensitive and thorny business.”
(Catherine Hickley writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are her own.)
To contact the writer on the story: Catherine Hickley in Vienna at firstname.lastname@example.org.