Ownership of Egon Schiele Drawing Lost During Holocaust to Be Decided by New York Court

A 1917 drawing by Egon Schiele is at the center of a restitution case that will soon head to court in New York.

The work in question, Portrait of the Artist’s Wife (1917), depicts Edith Schiele with her hands folded in her lap. The drawing was made a year before Edith and Egon died, both 28 years old, during the 1918 influenza epidemic. Portrait of the Artist’s Wife is estimated to be worth several million dollars.

The heirs of two Jewish collectors, Karl Mayländer and Heinrich Rieger, have both claimed ownership of the work. Mayländer was a textile merchant; Schiele made at least two portraits of him. Rieger was Schiele’s dentist. Both were killed by the Nazis during World War II, and their respective heirs both claim their relatives lost the work during the Holocaust.

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Philanthropist and art collector Robert Owen Lehman Sr., head of the Lehman Brothers investment firm through the Great Depression, bought Portrait of the Artist’s Wife from the London gallery Marlborough Fine Art, Ltd. for £2,000 ($5,600) in 1964. He gifted the piece to his son, the award-winning documentary filmmaker Robert Owen “Robin” Lehman Jr., as a Christmas present. He kept it until 1972, when he briefly lost the work during his divorce; when his ex-wife died in 2013, it was recovered from under her bed. In 2016 Lehman Jr. gifted the work to the Robert Owen Lehman Jr. Foundation.

The trial concerning the work’s ownership began in Rochester, New York, on Tuesday, with testimony expected to last until the end of May. In his ruling, State Supreme Court judge Daniel J. Doyle will consider circumstantial evidence, decades-old records, and a spotty provenance. Expert witnesses are expected to weigh in, with each party presenting evidence on their behalf.

Lehman Jr. testified not only to his frustration over the eight-year-long battle but also claimed that he had been open to resolving the ownership claim initially with the Mayländers. However, when a second claim emerged, Lehman said in court, “I came to the conclusion that possibly two claims can’t be correct.”

The work’s whereabouts between 1930 through 1964 are disputed among the heirs. Lehman Jr. has said there are no surviving records, and his Foundation claims that the drawing was not considered lost because it was not listed in a stolen or looted works database. The heirs, however, claim to have documents demonstrating their relatives’ ownership. They believe the Foundation did not adequately investigate the provenance.

It wasn’t until the Foundation planned to sell the work that these questions of ownership came to light. After the Foundation consigned the work with Christie’s, the auction house reviewed its database, where it found potential connections to Mayländer and Rieger. Christie’s subsequently contacted the heirs’ representatives; the auction house continues to hold the work.

Mayländer was deported to the Lodz ghetto in Poland in 1941 and later killed. An acquaintance, Etelka Hofmann, took possession of Mayländer’s artworks after the war and sold some of the pieces to a collector in 1960, including a Schiele work identified in a signed contract by the collector and Hofmann as “Edith Schiele, seated, watercolored drawing, signed and dated 1917.”

Rieger died in a Nazi concentration camp in 1942. Prior to his death, he collected 120 to 150 of Schiele’s watercolors.

The Lehman Foundation argues that neither Mayländer nor Rieger owned the portrait of Edith Schiele that was purchased by Lehman Sr.

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