Man's Bid for Compensation in Stolen Art Case Is Rejected

, New York Law Journal

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'Portrait of Wally' by Egon Schiele
'Portrait of Wally' by Egon Schiele

A man who helped a family in a 13-year fight to recover an Egon Schiele painting seized by the Nazis after Germany annexed Austria in 1938 is not entitled to a share of the compensation they received, a federal judge has ruled.

Robert Roistacher claimed he was entitled to $2.75 million of a $19 million settlement that the estate of Lea Bondi Jaray reached with the Leopold Museum of Austria in 2010 over Schiele's "Portrait Of Wally."

But Southern District Judge Katherine Forrest (See Profile) said there was no evidence that Roistacher, who was dating family member Ardith Bondi, ever expected to be paid.

"Instead, this is a situation in which a good deed has gone unrecognized: plaintiff gratuitously assisted his girlfriend and her family in obtaining rights to 'Portrait of Wally,' but frankly never expected they would succeed," Forrest said in Roistacher v. Bondi, 11 Civ. 8200.

"Portrait of Wally" is a 1912 oil painting of Valerie "Wally" Neuzil, Schiele's mistress and model.

The painting, which Lea Bondi Jaray was forced to surrender to a Nazi agent, was part of an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in December 1997, when the Bondi family began its long effort to recover it.

Henry Bondi, a nephew of Jaray, spoke with a Holocaust art restitution specialist about the family's ownership claim and then sent a letter to the MOMA asserting ownership rights of the painting.

Roistacher, who has a literary agency, contacted the Manhattan District Attorney's Office. When a subpoena from that office to keep the painting in the United States failed in New York State court, the U.S. Customs Service seized Wally as stolen property that had been imported in violation of federal law. The Southern District U.S. Attorneys's office then filed an action to retrieve the painting permanently on behalf of the heirs.

In his lawsuit alleging unjust enrichment by the family, Roistacher said he was instrumental in obtaining legal counsel for the family, and that, at various points, certain family members, including Ardith, promised him compensation if their efforts succeeded.

But in her decision, Forrest said Roistacher never had a possessory interest in the estate's funds.

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