Dispute over a potentially Nazi-looted Egon Schiele goes to trial in New York

The Art Newspaper 13 May 2024
By Torey Aker

Heirs of multiple Holocaust victims have made claims to the drawing, which a member of the Lehman Brothers banking dynasty bought as a gift for his son

Egon Schiele, Portrait of the Artist’s Wife, 1917

A potentially Nazi-looted drawing by famed Austrian Expressionist Egon Schiele is at the centre of an ownership dispute involving members of the Lehman Brothers US banking dynasty.

Schiele's Portrait of the Artist’s Wife (1917) was purchased in 1964 by Robert Owen Lehman Sr—an art collector and banker who steered the Lehman Brothers investment firm through the Great Depression—as a holiday gift for his son, Robert Owen Lehman Jr. Now, the heirs of two Jewish art collectors—Karl Mayländer and Heinrich Rieger—have alleged that their relatives were dispossessed of the work during the Holocaust. Mayländer, a textile merchant who appears in two Schiele portraits, and Rieger, Schiele’s dentist, were both killed by the Nazis during the Second World War.

A trial over the contested ownership of the drawing began on 7 May in Rochester, New York, with heirs of three Jewish families making their claims to the Schiele work. Court papers filed in advance of the trial outline evidence of rightful ownership from each party.

Representatives for the Robert Owen Lehman Jr. Foundation, which has owned the drawing since 2016, have claimed that there are no surviving records of the drawing’s provenance from 1930 to 1964, adding that the piece had not been listed in “any database of stolen or looted works” for decades after the end of the Second World War, according to The New York Times.

The heirs insist that the foundation did not thoroughly investigate the piece’s provenance, citing paperwork that proves ownership.

Robert Owen Lehman Sr. paid around $5,600 for the gouache and black crayon illustration when he originally purchased it from Marlborough Fine Art in London. The 17 inch by 18 inch artwork depicts Schiele’s wife Edith, who like Egon died of the Spanish flu pandemic in 1918.

Portrait of the Artist’s Wife is notable not only for its artistry, but also its history with the Lehmans, a family whose storied financial empire dates back to 1850 when three brothers founded Lehman Brothers. Upon Robert Owen Lehman Sr’s death in 1969, nearly 3,000 works from the devoted art patron's collection—including pieces by Goya and Rodin—were donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which named a wingafter him.

Robert Owen Lehman Jr didn’t join the family business—which filed for bankruptcy in September 2008, accelerating the global financial crisis that came to be known as the Great Recession—instead choosing to become a documentary filmmaker. After he and his first wife, Aki Lehman, divorced, she claimed that the drawing had been destroyed or lost. Following her death in 2013, he found under her bed.

Lehman Jr gave the drawing to his foundation in 2016 with the intention to sell the work and use the proceeds to “promote the appreciation and public awareness of classical music and encourage the creation of new artistic work including musical composition”.

After the foundation consigned the work for sale with Christie’s, the auction house reviewed its database of information about looted art, where potential connections to Mayländer and Rieger were spotted. The heirs were then contacted by Christie’s, precipitating the ownership dispute and subsequent trial.

The Susan Zirkl Memorial Foundation Trust and its trustee, Michael D. Lissner, claim that the drawing had been owned by a relative of Zirkl, Mayländer, who was deported to the Polish Lodz ghetto where he was killed in 1941. After the war, the artwork came into the ownership of an acquaintance, Etelka Hofmann, who may have sold it to a collector in 1960.

Schiele’s iterative subject matter and prolific production make the provenance identification of his potentially Nazi-looted works uniquely difficult. Lehman Jr testified that while he had sympathy for heirs whose relatives suffered under the Nazi regime, he had “spent a good year trying to get those two parties and myself together to make some sort of equitable, fair division of the artwork”.

Avi Bar, one of the Rieger heirs, told the Times that the dispute underscores “the justice of returning what was stolen during the Holocaust to the rightful heirs must be done”.
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