A 12-year battle over the possession of a painting that was stolen from a Jewish Austrian by the Nazis came to a close on Monday when the work by Austrian expressionist Egon Schiele was displayed at a Vienna museum.
The oil painting was returned over the weekend after the Leopold Museum agreed to pay $19 million US as part of the settlement to the estate of art dealer Lea Bondi Jaray, the original owner.
U.S. authorities had refused to return the painting to the Leopold Museum after it was exhibited in 1998 at the New York Museum of Modern Art because of a claim by her descendants.
Bondi Jaray was forced to sell the painting, Portrait of Wally, at an unrealistically low price in the prelude to World War II as part of a widespread Nazi campaign that stripped Jews in Austria, Germany and later other European countries of their possessions.
Portrait of Wally— which pictures Valerie "Wally" Neuzil, a woman Schiele knew and used as a model — was among more than 100 works the Leopold Foundation had leant to MoMA.
U.S. customs refused to let the work leave the country after Henry Bondi of Princeton, New Jersey, filed a claim that said his late aunt was forced to give up the painting before fleeing Vienna in 1939 to escape to London when Germany annexed Austria.
She died in 1969. Henry Bondi also has since died.
Controversy helped prompt restitution law
The controversy over the portrait, which the Leopold Museum acquired after the war, contributed to Austria passing a 1998 law that stipulates the restitution of property taken from the country's Jews by the Nazis.
But the restitution law applies to state institutions, not to private museums such as the Leopold Foundation — something that Vienna's Jewish community asserts was exploited by Leopold.
The museum was created by the late Rudolf Leopold. He is credited with assembling Austria's largest and most important private art collection, which includes more than 5,000 works by renowned artists such as Schiele, Gustav Klimt and Oskar Kokoschka.
According to the Jewish community's website, paintings by Schiele, Klimt and Egger-Lienz that were looted by the Nazis were bought by the Austrian state with public funds and given to the Leopold Foundation.
The foundation acknowledges that it is not ruled by the restitution law, but denies any wrongdoing.
Andreas Noedl, who sits on the Leopold museum's board, acknowledged the gross injustice done to Austria's Jews, telling reporters on Monday that the portrait "reflects the history of the horrendous atrocities during the Holocaust."
Leopold Museum chief Peter Weinhaeupl called the return a "symbolic day" for the museum.