Of the atrocities of the Nazi period in Europe, the theft of art may be the least of the horrors, but as the new documentary Portrait of Wally shows, the provenance of art can be infinitely fascinating. "Who owns art?" you might say is the center of the debate concerning art stolen from Jews. But as my mother, an Auschwitz survivor used to say, there is a right and a wrong. Directed by Andrew Shea, this provocative film tells the gripping tale of an Egon Schiele painting, seized from a Vienna art collector's home, and the drama of restitution. A world premiere screening at the Tribeca Film Festival seemed particularly apt, as part of this painting's story took place in New York.
In 1997, the painting, in the collection of a private Austrian museum, was on loan to MoMA for an exhibition. As the family of Lea Bondi, a pre-WWII collector in Vienna who recognized Schiele's work, contested ownership, District Attorney Robert Morgenthau stepped in to detain the work's return. Many New York museums protested, asserting that art would not be able to travel, if paintings on loan could not be returned. And further, they charged, families of looted art are simply after large sums of money many important works like the Schiele now command. Ronald Lauder had as many conflicts of interest as a person could have at the time, as chairman of MoMA, a Schiele collector, and the founder of the Commission for Art Recovery dedicated to the return to Jews of art looted by the Nazis. Art, Lauder has famously declared, is the last prisoner of war. Still, in the court proceedings, he sided with art institutions against the Bondi heirs.
A panel discussion featuring key players followed the screening, among them German-American lawyer, historian and former war crimes investigator Willi Korte, arts journalist David D'Arcy, co-director of Galerie St. Etienne in 1979 Jane Kallir, and Chief of the Asset Forfeiture Unit in the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York Sharon Cohen Levin. With many Bondi heirs in attendance, and sympathies resting with the moral issues at stake, the actions of art institutions, and Lauder seem, simply, indefensible. As family member Ruth Rozanek, put it, "I would love to understand him."
Although asked, Ronald Lauder was not interviewed for the film, nor did anyone representing his point of view appear on the festival's panel.
But Ronald Lauder did introduce a screening the next night at MoMA, an Israeli film about an Israeli hero titled Follow Me: The Yoni Netanyahu Story. Showing a sense of humor, Lauder said he had been cautioned about scheduling this event on a Sunday night in competition with Mad Men on television. This documentary screened before a who's who of the New York Jewish cultural world, turned out to be something of a tribute film. Directors Jonathan Gruber and Ari Daniel Pinchot said they wanted young people to be inspired by the passion, guts, and dedication of this charismatic Israeli Yoni Netanyahu, the brother of Benjamin, who was the only Israeli casualty in a daring 1976 raid at the airport in Entebbe, Uganda, freeing all hostages and killing the terrorists holding them. That the filmmakers chose to focus on interviews by family, friends, his ex-wife and girlfriend, fellow soldiers, with a voice over of the fallen hero's poetic journals and letters, and not to tell the story of how this remarkable man died, seems odd and incomplete, as if there were a part of the story they simply did not want to tell.
A version of this post also appears on Gossip Central.