Ownership of lost Egon Schiele drawing to be debated in New York court

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Frequently, the art world produces a tale of real intrigue, leaving onlookers on the edge of their seats as the story develops and different strands emerge. An example of this phenomenon is presently unfolding in a Rochester, New York restitution case surrounding a 1917 drawing by expressionist pioneer Egon Schiele.

The work at the centre of this case is Portrait of the Artist’s Wife, which portrays his wife, Edith Schiele, with her hands on her lap. Notably, the drawing was crafted a year before both died aged 28 in 1918 as the Spanish flu epidemic hit their native Austria. 

Given Schiele’s prominence in art history and his tragic end, the drawing is estimated to be worth millions of dollars.

The work is shrouded in mystery due to what happened to it in the years following Schiele’s passing. Now, the heirs of two prominent collectors from his time, Karl Mayländer and Heinrich Rieger, are claiming ownership. Both knew the artist, with the former a textile merchant of whom the artist made two portraits, and the latter was his dentist, who collected between 120 and 150 of his watercolour efforts.

Yet, both men were killed during the Nazis’ murderous campaign of hate during the Second World War due to their Jewish origins, which has fed into the present confusion, with each’s heirs claiming that they lost the work during the Holocaust.

After the war, Etelka Hofmann, an acquaintance of Mayländer’s, took in his artworks. In 1960, she sold some pieces to a collector, including one by Schiele. It is confirmed in a signed contract by the buyer and Hofmann as “Edith Schiele, seated, watercoloured drawing, signed and dated 1917.”

Enter Robert Owen Lehman Sr., who ran Lehman Brothers during the Great Depression. He purchased Portrait of the Artist’s Wife from the London gallery Marlborough Fine Art, Ltd. for £2,000 ($5,600) back in 1964. Although he died in 1969, he had previously gifted it to his son as a Christmas present, Robert Owen ‘Robin’ Lehman Jr, the famed director. 

However, in 1972, Lehman Jr lost the work during his divorce. Years later, after his ex-wife died in 2013, the Schiele work was found under her bed. In 2016, the director donated the work to the Robert Owen Lehman Jr. Foundation.

The trial over the ownership of Portrait of the Artist’s Wife commenced in Rochester on Tuesday, with testimonies expected to last until the end of the month.

Lehman Jr. has already testified and, according to ArtNews, has expressed frustration at the eight-year battle and maintained that he is open to resolving the question of ownership with the Mayländer family. However, in light of the Rieger contest emerging, he told the court: “I came to the conclusion that possibly two claims can’t be correct.”

Throwing a spanner in the works is that the location of the piece between 1930 and 1964 is disputed by the heirs, with Lehman Jr also claiming there are no records that have survived. Furthermore, the foundation claims they did not consider it lost because it was not listed in the appropriate databases. Another twist is that the heirs claim they have documents proving their late relatives’ custody of the drawing.

The foundation also asserts that neither Mayländer nor Rieger owned the portrait that Lehman Sr. bought back in 1964.

Interestingly, the debate about the ownership of Portrait of the Artist’s Wife only emerged when the foundation planned to sell the work and it was consigned to Christie’s auction house. When they reviewed their database, the British company found potential links to both Mayländer and Rieger. Dutifully, they contacted the heirs and continues to hold the work until a ruling is made.

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