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Chasing Stolen Art

Power, Politics & People

January 15, 1998 | 7:00 pm

 

Chasing Stolen Art

By J.J. Goldberg, National Correspondent

Henry Bondi, a Princeton, N.J., biochemical engineer, has spentmuch of his adult life chasing after a painting that he says Nazisstole from his aunt.

Now, at 76, he's finally getting close. The painting was broughtto New York's Museum of Modern Art this fall, on loan from a Viennesemuseum. Thanks to quick thinking by New York's senior prosecutor, andbungling by the Museum of Modern Art, the painting is being held inNew York under subpoena as suspected stolen property. Despite outragefrom art experts and threats of a U.S.-Austrian crisis, ManhattanDistrict Attorney Robert Morgenthau plans to launch a criminal probe."I'm not making policy," he says. "I get paid to enforce the law."

As for Henry Bondi, now that success is in sight he seems a bitdisgusted by it all. Partly he's tired after years of fighting aloneagainst Austrian authorities. "In time," he says, "you begin to say,'Why spend any more time?' It's just a drag. You have to get on withyour life. And then this ready-made forum is created overnight." Andso he wearily gears up for another round.

Partly, too, Bondi is galled to find himself part of what he callsthe "Holocaust industry," the media circus that turns millions ofpersonal misfortunes into a morality play whose meaning he questions."The word 'holocaust' means sacrifice," he says. "My family andmillions like them were not sacrificed. They were murdered."

If it is indeed a morality play engulfing Bondi's privatestruggle, it is shaping up as a hit, starring some of AmericanJewry's finest. One is Morgenthau, chairman of New York's newHolocaust museum and scion of "Our Crowd," the old German-Jewisharistocracy. His father Henry Jr., treasury secretary during WorldWar II, was the only senior Roosevelt administration official todemand U.S. efforts to rescue European Jews.

Another star is Ronald Lauder, former U.S. ambassador to Austriaand chairman of the newly formed commission on art recovery of theWorld Jewish Congress. Lauder is also, ironically, chairman of theMuseum of Modern Art. It was his love for Austrian expressionism thatbrought the disputed painting to New York in the first place. Latelyfinding he's on both sides of the dispute -- "a very Jewishposition," says an associate -- he has been avoiding pressinterviews.

The painting is "Portrait of Wally," by pre-World War I Austrianexpressionist Egon Schiele. It once hung in the Vienna home ofBondi's aunt, art dealer Lea Bondi Jarray, Schiele's first champion.In 1938, days after Hitler annexed Austria, hours before Jarray wasto flee to London, the painting was taken from her home by a Nazi artcollector. He paid her a nominal sum, but she was not allowed to takethe cash out of the country. She died in 1969 at age 90, stillfighting.

After the war, the Allies arrested the Nazi collector. Most of hisplunder landed in the Austrian National Gallery, which sold "Wally"in 1954 to Rudolf Leopold, a Viennese ophthalmologist and artfancier. In 1994, the Leopold Museum was built to display the eyedoctor's collection. A year later his 150 Schieles went on tour,reaching New York last October. "Egon Schiele: The LeopoldCollection" was the fall hit of the Museum of Modern Art.

Bondi and another claimant, art critic Rita Reif, asked the Modernto keep the disputed paintings and investigate their ownership. Themuseum refused, saying it had no legal standing to investigateborrowed works. It also said that failing to return the art wouldundermine the system of museum loans, a staple of museums in recentyears. "That's one reason New York is such a center of the art world,because there are so many loan exhibitions," says Modern spokeswomanElizabeth Addison. "Besides, so many paintings have changed handsrepeatedly over the years. They're all over the world. Where does itend?"

The World Jewish Congress estimates as many as 75,000 pieces ofart looted by the Nazis are still unaccounted for. This fall the WJCset up an art recovery commission recovery under Ronald Lauder topursue the issue. Even before it convened, Lauder's panel scored itsfirst victory on Jan. 6 when the Leopold Museum asked it to name atribunal to judge the Bondi and Reif claims.

But Bondi saw no reason to trust the Austrians if "Wally" left NewYork. When the Modern refused to detain it, he turned to Morgenthau.

On Jan. 7, just as the Schieles were to be crated for

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