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Restitution Battle: 1917 Egon Schiele Drawing Sparks Court Case in New York

Background

The contentious ownership of a 1917 drawing by Egon Schiele, titled “Portrait of the Artist’s Wife,” has ignited a legal battle in New York. The drawing, portraying Edith Schiele, holds both historical and artistic significance, valued in the millions of dollars.

Claims and Counterclaims

The heirs of Karl Mayländer and Heinrich Rieger, both Jewish collectors who perished during World War II, assert ownership of the artwork. Mayländer, a textile merchant, and Rieger, Schiele’s dentist, were victims of the Holocaust. Their descendants contend that the drawing was lost during the war and should be returned to them as rightful heirs.

Lehman Family Involvement

The drawing’s current possessor, the Robert Owen Lehman Jr. Foundation, traces its ownership back to Robert Owen Lehman Sr., a philanthropist and art collector. Lehman Sr. purchased the artwork in 1964 and later gifted it to his son, Lehman Jr. Despite Lehman Jr.’s claims of open communication with the Mayländer heirs for resolution, the emergence of a second claimant complicated the situation.

Trial Proceedings

The trial, presided over by State Supreme Court Judge Daniel J. Doyle, commenced in Rochester, New York. Testimony is anticipated to span until the end of May, with both parties presenting circumstantial evidence, historical records, and expert witnesses. The court will scrutinize the provenance and assess the validity of competing claims.

Disputed Provenance

The whereabouts of the artwork between 1930 and 1964 are contested, with Lehman Jr. asserting the absence of surviving records. The Foundation maintains that the drawing was not considered lost, as it was not listed in stolen or looted works databases. However, the heirs argue that documentation exists to support their relatives’ ownership, suggesting inadequate due diligence by the Foundation.

Discovery and Auction

The dispute came to the forefront when the Foundation intended to sell the artwork through Christie’s auction house. Upon reviewing its database, Christie’s identified potential connections to Mayländer and Rieger and notified their heirs’ representatives. Consequently, the auction house retained possession of the drawing pending the resolution of the ownership dispute.

Historical Context

Mayländer was deported to the Lodz ghetto in Poland in 1941, where he met his demise. After the war, his acquaintance, Etelka Hofmann, claimed possession of Mayländer’s artworks, including a Schiele piece, which was subsequently sold to a collector in 1960. Similarly, Rieger, who perished in a Nazi concentration camp in 1942, amassed a notable collection of Schiele’s watercolours prior to his death.

Foundation’s Defense

The Lehman Foundation refutes claims that Mayländer or Rieger owned the portrait of Edith Schiele purchased by Lehman Sr. It contends that the artwork’s acquisition and subsequent lineage do not align with the assertions made by the claimants.

The outcome of this legal battle will not only determine the rightful ownership of a valuable artwork but also carry implications for addressing restitution claims related to Nazi-era looting and Holocaust-era losses in the art world.

Feature Image: Egon Schiele’s Portrait of the Artist’s Wife, 1917 | Courtesy: Art News

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