One of the most detailed filmic depictions of the complicated world of art provenance and Holocaust restitution began on the snowy streets of Utah.
Andrew Shea walked around downtown Park City in 1999, nail-gunning movie posters to telephone poles as journalist David D'Arcy followed along asking questions about Shea's Sundance Film Festival selection, "The Corndog Man."
The casual interview would lead to a friendship that has spanned over a decade and eventually served as the impetus for Shea's documentary feature debut, "Portrait of Wally."
Austrian Egon Schiele, known for his sexually charged art, painted an expressionist portrait of his lover, Walburga Neuzil, in 1912. The painting, "Portrait of Wally," eventually ended up in the Viennese gallery of Leah Bondi.
When Nazis ransacked Jewish property during the annexation of Austria in 1938, Nazi officer Friedrich Welz stole Bondi's painting. And after the war, "Portrait of Wally" landed first in the hands of Austria's Belvedere Museum and then into the collection of Rudolf Leopold — and eventually his museum — beginning a decades-long struggle by Bondi and her descendants to return the artwork to its original owner.
The painting made its way to the United States in 1997, where it was displayed at the Museum of Modern Art on loan from the Leopold Museum. U.S. Customs officials seized Schiele's painting in an effort to return it to the Bondi family in America. MoMA reacted with defiance, declaring that the intervention by U.S. authorities would limit the museum's future loan agreements.
The controversy between Bondi's heirs and the Leopold Museum and MoMA led to a decade-long court stand-off and triggered the broadest discussion to date of art provenance and restitution.
D'Arcy covered the story for National Public Radio, eventually losing his job after MoMA objected to his depiction of the museum's role in the ownership dispute. Shea, an associate professor in the Radio, Television and Film Department at the University of Texas, became aware of the percolating controversy in 2004, and joined forces with D'Arcy to produce and write the documentary that would trace the painting's complicated history and reveal systematic obstruction by arts organizations.
With a timeline dating back to 1912, Shea faced the complex narrative challenge of delivering a 100-year history in what he calls "a compressed, condensed, compelling way that still feels truthful and complete."
"It was daunting," Shea said recently. "And I was worried about not just keeping it moving but how to keep it moving in a way that keeps you engaged. ... The emotional core of the film always had to remain Leah Bondi and her family's struggle, and we never strayed too far from that."
The tortured history of the painting and its ownership touches on a host of themes and storylines, from Nazi occupation of Austria, to modern-day Austrians' impression of themselves as complicit in Nazi crimes, to art provenance and restitution.
And underlying it all was the complex legal battle that involved the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, New York City's district attorney and the U.S. Congress. Shea decided the best way to tell the story was to keep the focus on the journey of the painting.
"What really solved the structure of the film was that this was going to be a history of the painting, and that becomes the thread," Shea said. "We start with the creation of it and we finish with the painting's return. ... By focusing on this one painting, we opened the film up to this emotional journey."
That emotional journey was fueled by Bondi's descendants' desire for justice, a plight to which Shea is obviously sympathetic. Leopold, who seemingly knew of the portrait's illegal provenance, though he pleaded ignorance, was not the Bondi family's only obstacle. He wasn't even their most formidable one.
MoMA, led by chairman Ronald Lauder, fought relentlessly to keep the painting from the Bondi family out of fear that returning it to its original owner would erode their standing in the world of art loans.
"It's the Museum of Modern Art's role in this that makes this potentially a lot of interest for Americans," Shea said. "This is an American story. It's not a European restitution battle going on; it's an American story."
Shea says the institutional thinking of MoMA and its desire to protect its own interests surprised, but did not shock, him.
"To me this was a story of good versus evil, and to me what made the story worth spending five years of my life on was the involvement of the American museum community, particularly the Museum of Modern Art," Shea said. "And I feel we should question our big cultural institutions about their role in these disputes and about whether they are doing everything they can to research the provenance of the paintings in their collection and the provenance of the paintings that they borrow. And this case was the one that really shifted the discussion of provenance research."
Contact Matthew Odam at 912-5986. Twitter: @Odam