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A Three-Way Ownership Battle over Egon Schiele Watercolor

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Courtney Pierce

Center for Art Collection Ethics Graduate Assistant

Elizabeth Campbell

Director of the Center for Art Collection Ethics

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The heir to the Robert Owen Lehman Foundation and heirs of two Holocaust victims are in a three-way legal battle over Egon Schiele’s watercolor, Portrait of the Artist’s Wife (1917). Robert “Robin” Owen Lehman, son of the late investment banker Robert Lehman, bought the watercolor in 1964 from Marlborough Gallery in London. Seeking to raise funds through a sale, Robin transferred ownership of the piece to the Foundation, which consigned it to Christie’s in New York in 2016. Provenance research led Christie’s to contact the Israelitische Kultusgemeinde (IKG) representing Vienna’s Jewish orthodox community. According to the IKG, Karl Maylaender, a Jewish businessman living in Vienna, had owned the watercolor and had given it and other artworks to his companion, Etelka Hofmann, before he was deported to Lodz, Poland in 1941. He eventually perished at Auschwitz

Portrait of the Artist’s Wife, Schiele, 1917. Image credit: The Art Newspaper.
Portrait of the Artist’s Wife, Schiele, 1917.
Image credit: The Art Newspaper.

Yet the IKG also maintains that Maylaender’s lawful heir was actually his nephew, who emigrated to New York, and that the current rightful owner is 98-year-old Eva Zirkl, the widow of that nephew’s second wife’s brother. Zirkl, who lives in New York, has already received works that belonged to Maylaender from the Albertina Museum and Leopold Museum, both in Vienna.

The third party petitioning for the painting is the Robert Rieger Trust, representing heirs of Heinrich Rieger, Schiele’s dentist and an early collector of the artist’s work. Rieger perished in the Holocaust, and his descendants say the piece “was always regarded as a special piece of the Rieger collection” and was described “separately both in pre-war lists and also in post-war search lists.”

On 29 October 2019, the IKG filed suit against the Lehman Foundation and the Rieger heirs on behalf of a foundation established by the Zirkl family, seeking title, restitution and damages. 

Read more about this complex case here.