Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Portrait of "Portrait of Wally"

 Playing in Theaters

Portrait of "Portrait of Wally"

( 5/9/12)

Portrait of Wally, about the most famous case involving the restitution of art stolen from European Jews by the Nazis was THE thinking-man's documentary at this year's Tribeca Film Festival. In fact, it was part of the Tribeca Talks series, prior to this weekend's opening at the Quad Cinema in New York. Directed by Andrew Shea (see photo) and cowritten by Shea and journalist David D'Arcy (see photo, in chair), it isn't simply the retelling of a long, intricate legal battle to determine the provenance of a masterpiece, but is also both a fascinating detective story with an array of good guys and crooks and a David-vs-Goliath tale in which a wronged family takes on the likes of Austrian government, corrupt billionaire art collectors, MoMA, and even NPR. To set the stage: The Portrait of Wally is a 1912 oil painting by Austrian Egon Shiele of his teenage mistress Valerie "Wally" Neuzil. In 1939, twenty-one years after the twenty-eight-year-old Shiele died during a Spanish flu pandemic, the Nazis seized the painting from art dealer and collector Lea Bondi (Jaray). After the war, American forces retrieved the painting but it ended up not with its owner but in the Belvedere, Austria's National Museum. In 1953 Bondi asked art collector Rudolf Leopold to try to get it back for her. Instead, he acquired the painting for himself and eventually displayed it in his government-established Leopold Museum in Vienna. Bondi Jaray hired lawyers and was still trying to get the painting back when she passed away in 1969. The story might have ended there but in 1997, Portrait of Wally was loaned by the Leopold Musuem to MoMA in New York City to be part of a Schiele exhibit. An article about the painting's history appeared in the New York Times. This prompted the heirs of Lea Bondi Jaray, most prominently Andre Bondi (see photo, at podium), to contact the New York County District Attorney, who in turn issued a subpoena forbidding its return to Austria. This set in motion years of wrangling over provenance. Leopold died in 2009 but his wife Elizabeth (see photo, displaying painting with a smile that will infuriate her detractors) carried on his fight to keep Shiele's painting at the museum in Austria. A $19M settlement was reached in 2010 but still there is controversy and anger over the outcome.
All this and much more is covered in the documentary, which I urge everyone to see. Also by copying and pasting, check out the film's site: Below is Andrew Shea's statement about the film, followed by a brief email interview I did with David D'Arcy, who not only cowrote it but appears as an informative talking head.
Andrew Shea's Director's Statement: I was hesitant to take on this project when David D'Arcy, an old friend and former reporter for National Public Radio, brought the story of Portrait of Wally to my attention several years ago. The saga of this small painting by Egon Schiele spanned almost a century and several continents. Many of the key players were dead. The case had been mired in the United States federal courts
for almost a decade, with no end in sight. But as I dug deeper I was struck by the sense of outrage and loss this painting aroused in so many people: the family of the Viennese art dealer Lea Bondi, determined to reclaim the stolen portrait she had failed to recover in her lifetime; the Manhattan District Attorney who sent shock waves through the international art world and enraged many of New Yorks most prominent cultural organizations when he issued a subpoena and launched a criminal investigation following the surprise resurfacing of Portrait of Wally; the New York art dealer who tipped off a reporter about the painting during the opening of a Schiele exhibition at a major American art museum; the Senior Special Agent at the Department of Homeland Security who vowed not to retire until the fight was over; the art theft investigator who unearthed the post-war subterfuge and confusion that ultimately landed the painting in the hands of a young, obsessed Schiele collector; the museum official who testified before Congress that the seizure of Portrait of Wally could have a crippling effect on the ability of American museums to borrow works of art; the Assistant United States Attorney who took the case to the eve of trial; and the legendary Schiele collector who bartered for Portrait of Wally in the early 1950s and fought to the end of his life to bring it home to Vienna. This outpouring of passion convinced me to take on a project that I knew would take years to complete. My hope is that we have succeeded in translating a singularly convoluted story into a compelling and human film that gives voice to the raw emotion of the many people whose lives have been touched by Schieles tender portrait of his mistress.

Interview with David D'Arcy
Danny Peary: You have been covering the topic of art stolen from the Jews by the Nazis for many years. Was it something you felt deeply personal about and/or was it just an intriguing topic for a curious journalist?
David D'Arcy: I have been covering this issue since the 1980s, for Art Newspaper, Art + Auction, and NPR. Why? Property somehow creates overlapping territory shared by the worst criminals of the 20th century and those who happened to buy it or own it or hold it after the war. Recovering that property offers a faint hope of justice for those who survived.

DP: Were you feeling like an investigative reporter uncovering corruption or, as a cynical veteran on this subject, did you basically know everything or predict everything that would transpire?
DD: I am an investigative reporter. I have been doing it for 30 years (for NPR, CBC, Vanity Fair, Art + Auction, etc.). What struck me was how an institution like MoMA took the position that it took on a Holocaust property crime, and then walked away without talking about it.

DP: Did you always think of the "Wally" story as ideal for a documentary? Or did you think the opposite?

DD: "Wally" is a good story for a doc--you just have to find the filmmakers who can turn it into cinema. I hope the film achieved some of that. Just keeping the story alive is a good thing.

DP: What were your initial discussions with Andrew Shea when you decided to start tackling a script? Did you use a script to find money for the production?

DD: There wasnt much discussion--the script is just a distillation of interviews, so it wasnt used to raise money.

DP: Since it was an open-ended story with twists and turns, did you fear that you'd be constantly rewriting it?

DD: There were no constant rewrites--the story is already overtaken by events. Other works of art are the subject of restitution claims, and the money hasnt been distributed to the heirs yet.
Portraitofwallydaviddarcy.jpg David D'Arcy
DP: Was the most difficult challenge the fact that Lea, the heroine of the piece, died long ago while the villains were still present?

DD: Lea Bondi is not the heroine of this story. She was a victim of theft, of a Holocaust property crime, and she failed to recover her property, or even to make a claim, but the family and the US attorney made the recovery possible. The term villain doesnt seem right, but the opponents of giving back the property stolen during the Holocaust never explained why they took those positions. Please ask them why that is. MoMA ran away from this film project. So did National Public Radio. They werent pillagers, but they make accountability difficult.

DP: This film has unconventional villains--people who run museums, MoMA, NPR, in some cases the law. As a writer, what were the challenges of portraying good guys and bad guys or was that never a concern? My sense is that you had to fill the gap left by Lea and bring in Willi Korte, Sharon Cohen Levin, Jane Kallir, Robert Morgenthau, Edith Bondi, and Andre Bondi--did you think in such terms?

DD: Forget about villains, think of the opposition to Lea Bondi as the banality of indifference, which became acute when I reported on it for NPR--then you get an attack on me behind my back by MoMA, and a combination of credulity and fear by NPR--the worst qualities to be found in people practicing journalism.

DP: Did the settlement throw you for a loop? Did you suddenly worry that an unsatisfying resolution to the "Wally" story might make your film have an unsatisfying ending for viewers?

DD: I broke the story of the settlement in Art Newspaper--it was a fact, so I didn't have the luxury of having any feelings about it. So was Leopold's death, which happened when I was in Vienna. I would have wanted to speak to him, but somehow my Ouija board hasnt been able to make contact. I suppose that's a regret.

DP: What was the ending you hoped you'd write?
DD: I didnt hope for an ending. I would still like NPR to apologize for the deceit and malice that it showed toward me, and for deliberately and maliciously airing false information which documents in their possession (provided to them by me at their request) showed to be false. They betrayed millions of listeners. They have never explained why they did that. People who give them money based on a relationship of trust are owed an explanation.
portraitofwallyandreibondi.jpg portraitofwallyeleopold.jpgAndre Bondi (top) Elizabeth Leopold (bottom)
DP: Andrew has thanked many people for helping him with this film. Who did you collaborate with over the years, including those on the Tribeca Talks panel?

DD: Willi Korte was an extraordinary source of information and insight. Jane Kallir is a great authority on Schiele and her values are in the right place. Sharon Levin fought a long, long fight against tough odds, as did her office. Marc Masurovsky brought and brings a moral intensity to the field of restitution. Hubertus Czernin was essential to all this, opening up Austrian institutions and their secrets, and publishing what no one else would. Der Standard in Vienna does a remarkable job on restitution stories.

DP: What is your greatest satisfaction as the cowriter of this film?

DD: I am pleased that some of the story of "Wally" made it to the screen.

To learn more about the story behind Portrait of Wally and find out where it will be screening nationally and internationally, copy and paste and go to this link:


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