Rochester trial to decide ownership of million-dollar painting amidst claims of Nazi theft

Poughkeepsie Journal 4 June 2024
Gary Craig

Egon Schiele's 1917 watercolor drawing of his wife would be notable, even were it not the focus of current challenges to its provenance, its history and questions of whether it was looted by the Nazis.

The drawing from the Austrian artist is almost quaint, capturing his wife, Edith, in a relaxed and seated pose, her hands crossed, a wisp of a smile evident, her cheeks red in complexion. There is a contentedness in the drawing, a piece of work from an artist more known for provocative nudes — so much so that many of his paintings and drawings were deemed "degenerate" by Nazi authorities.

A year after the 1917 drawing, both Schiele and his wife would be killed by the Spanish flu. And the art, dubbed "Portrait of the Artist's Wife," would begin a century-long journey that now has its ownership at issue in a state Supreme Court courtroom in Rochester.

Hundreds of thousands of pieces of Jewish-owned art were stolen by the Nazis and the thievery has been the focus of court cases, law enforcement investigations and films and books. But an actual trial over ownership is uncommon; there appear to have been a small handful in the United States. And those cases have often been truncated.

This trial generated more than 1,700 pages of transcripts and is clearly one of the most expansive trials of its kind in the United States.

"This trial ... is unique, and this record is unique in history," New York City-based attorney Raymond Dowd said in a closing argument Wednesday.

Egon Schiele's watercolor drawing of his wife, Edith, which is the focus of a trial over its ownership.  
Court exhibit

The ownership fight

Robert "Robin" Lehman Jr., the son of Robert Lehman, has had the Schiele watercolor in his family since 1964, when his father purchased it for about $5,600 at a London art show and later gifted it to his son for Christmas.

Two other families contend that the artwork was the property of their relatives who were killed by the Nazis.

For the past month, state Supreme Court Justice Daniel Doyle has presided over the trial about the art's ownership — a courtroom fight that has caught the eye of several arts world publications and has included remote testimony from Germany, England and elsewhere.

Attorney Thaddeus Stauber with art catalogs during the trial focusing on a piece of art from Egon Schiele that was allegedly looted by the Nazis.

Art experts have taken the stand — some remotely. Their opinions and insights were considered unassailable by the legal teams who used them and often unreliable by the others.

Vying for ownership of the drawing are:

  • The Robert Owen Lehman Foundation, which Lehman said he gifted the drawing to in 2016.
  • The heirs of Karl Mayländer, a Jewish art collector and textile merchant who knew Schiele. Schiele actually made portraits of Mayländer, who was murdered by Nazis in the Holocaust.
  • The heirs of Heinrich Rieger, who was Schiele's dentist and also an art collector. Rieger, who had dozens of Schiele's artworks, was killed in a concentration camp.

Prompting the legal imbroglio was Lehman's gifting of the drawing to the Robert Owen Lehman Foundation, commonly called ROLF, and its subsequent plans to have Christie's sell the artwork to help finance the foundation and its mission to bolster the arts, particularly music. The value of the drawing has varied, with some estimates upward of $10 million.

However, Christie's shelved the possible sale upon learning that the Mayländers and Riegers were, upon discovering the existence of the drawing, laying claim to the art.

Christie's decision was understandable, said Thaddeus Stauber, a Los Angeles-based attorney for the Lehmans and ROLF.

"They want to clear the drawing," he said in his closing. "They want to sell it. That's the business that they are in.

Challenges to Lehman's ownership

Attorney Raymond Dowd with reproductions of two works by artist Egon Schiele during the trial in state Supreme Court in Rochester.

While many in Robin Lehman's family made a career in finance — he is a scion of the Lehman Brothers financial services dynasty — Lehman instead carved out a livelihood in film, winning Oscars for short films.

Lehman moved to Rochester "for love," he testified during the trial. His wife, Marie Rolf, is a professor emerita of music theory at the Eastman School of Music. Lehman's local residence is what brought the trial to Rochester.

For years, Lehman's ex-wife had the Schiele drawing in Europe, even after a ruling in the divorce that Lehman was the rightful owner. After her death in 2013, the "Portrait of the Artist's Wife" was found under her bed, according to testimony.

Before the 1964 purchase by Lehman's father, there is the mystery of its whereabouts.

"We don't know where it was from 1917 to 1964," Stauber said. "We really don't know."

There are points of agreement, most explicitly the fact that there is not an ironclad definitive piece of evidence linking the drawing's ownership to one of the families.

"There's no silver bullet in this case," New York City-based lawyer Oren Warshavsky, a lawyer for the Mayländers, said in his closing. "... If there were, none of us would be here of course."

Proving who owns 'The Portrait'

The proof of ownership varies, with claims from the Mayländers and Riegers that Schiele's drawing was part of their familial art collections before the Holocaust.

The trial testimony of ownership claims was laden with art world arcana: Pages from decades-old arts catalogues, talk of extensive provenance research and the importance of numbers as identifying factors on the rear side of the art.

As well, testimony spoke of the horrific era of the Holocaust and the thirst of the Nazis for art.

Doyle plans to later release a written decision. The trial testimony is ample, and there were more than 1,000 legal filings even before the trial's start.

Ownership can be determined by a "preponderance" of evidence, proof that one family most likely, if not certainly, is the rightful owner.

But, for the families, that decision may not clear the air or resolve the questions.

American art dealer Jane Kallir testified during the trial; among her works are what are considered by some the definitive catalogs of Schiele's art. She has included Lehman as the owner of "Portrait of the Artist's Wife" in the catalogues.

Kallir was asked at trial whether she would change her findings about the ownership if the judge determined that ROLF was not the rightful owner.

"Probably not," she said.

— Gary Craig is a veteran reporter with the Democrat and Chronicle, covering courts and crime and more. He is the author of two books, including "Seven Million: A Cop, a Priest, a Soldier for the IRA, and the Still-Unsolved Rochester Brink's Heist."

— D&C journalist Madison Scott contributed reporting for this article.
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