(director/writer: Andrew Shea; screenwriter: David D’Arcy; cinematographer: Sam Henriques; editor: Melissa Shea; music: Gary Lionelli; cast: Morley Safer, Michael B. Mukasey, Robert Morgenthau, Sharon Cohen Levin, Ori Z. Soltes, Jane Kallir, Tom. L. Freudenheim, David D’Arcy, Bonnie Goldblatt, Elizabeth Leopold; Runtime: 90; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Andrew Shea/Barbara Morgan/David D’Arcy; Seventh Art Releasing; 2012)

“Intricate documentary about stolen art is presented as if it were a thriller.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Director Andrew Shea’s (“Santa Fe”/”The Corndog Man”/”Forfeit”)intricate documentary about stolen art is presented as if it were a thriller. It follows the historical theft case of Jewish art during the war by the Nazis and films it along the lines of a suspenseful detective story. It remains a good watch despite dragging on for too long, filling the screen with too many talking heads and containing too many court procedural facts about legal issues that are too legalese for the ordinary viewer to completely grasp.

Shea and writer David D’Arcy cowrite the twisty screenplay. D’Arcy is a journalist who worked for NPR in 2004 until fired for supposedly shoddy reporting after telling the truth about MoMA’s position to return the titled work to Austria despite claiming neutrality over the matter and his cowardly public radio station bosses were thereby pressured by the museum director to release a false retraction and can the reporter.

The film tells how in Vienna, in 1939, a 1912 oil painting by an unknown at the time salacious young Austrian artist, Egon Schiele, painted a portrait of his mistress, entitled Portrait of Wally, which was stolen from the apartment of Jewish gallery owner Lea Bondi by the Nazi official Friedrich Weltz. After the war when the American military returned the stolen goods to Austria, it ended up in Austria’s Belvedere Museum and was not returned to its rightful owner. The museum curator fudged who previously owned the painting and the stolen work was falsely listed as part of another stolen Jewish collection. Lea Bondi Jaray lived in London after the war and unsuccessfully tried retrieving her painting, which in 1954 came into the possession of wealthy art collector and Schiele expert Rudolf Leopold. The film’s villain fooled Lea by pretending to be her friend and promised to help her efforts at retrieval of her painting, but in secret purchased it for himself even though he knew it was stolen. Lea died in 1969, but her heirs hired lawyers and continued to ask for justice and the return of their family painting. The opportunity for restitution of the stolen painting came when it was on loan from the Leopold Museum in Vienna to NYC’s MoMA for an exhibit in 1997 and was subpoenaed by Manhattan DA Robert Morgenthau. Thereby it was not allowed to return to Vienna until a court hearing over a civil law suit was held in NYC in 2010 to determine if it was stolen art. Leopold died after giving a deposition and his snide widow Elizabeth chooses to avoid a trial and to pay the heirs 19 million dollars to keep the painting in Vienna, in her museum’s possession, which is a bittersweet victory for those seeking justice–but some cynically say, they might get the dough but lose the painting.

The film points its finger at institutions willing to look the other way at collecting stolen goods, governments not willing to fight for justice, of politicians with conflicts of interest who can’t be trusted and of how it sometimes takes as long as seventy years to stand up and fight alone for one’s principles against the higher powers to even get some kind of convenient but not altogether satisfactory justice.

Portrait of Wally (2012)