In war-torn Europe, with the Nazi persecution of Jews and other groups, many people decided to literally run for their lives, abandoning hearth and home and everything in it, including family heirlooms and valuable artwork.
Senior Special Agent Bonnie Goldblatt, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) subject matter expert on cultural property, art and antiquities for the Northeast region, will also tell you of the pains European people went to in protecting their artwork while the war raged with air raids sounding and bombs blasting. She will tell you that museum owners and curators literally emptied their museums, crating the artwork and hiding it around the countryside. After the war, it wasn't unusual for U.S. servicemen to discover paintings hidden in quarries and unusual places, some of which made their way to the United States.
Today, Goldblatt says, the next generation is finding these treasures. Some are turning up in grandpa's attic. Others are being discovered in museums and in auction houses.
Such was the case with the Portrait of Wally, a masterpiece Egon Schiele oil painting that the Nazis had stolen from the painting's Jewish owner, Lea Bondi. In 1939, the night before Bondi's escape from German-occupied Austria, Nazi art collector Friedrich Welz visited her. He demanded that she give him the Portrait of Wally that was hanging on the wall of her apartment. In trepidation, Bondi complied.
Fast forward to January 1998 in New York City. Over coffee one morning, Goldblatt and her husband are reading the New York Times. An article titled, "Modern Refuses To Detain 2 Schieles," states the family of Lea Bondi Jaray (reflecting Bondi's married name) is filing a claim against the Portrait of Wally because its "provenance is clouded by Nazi wartime plundering." The painting is scheduled to be shipped back overseas. "Can't someone do something about this?" Goldblatt's husband asks. Goldblatt begins making inquiries.
At that time, Rudolph Leopold, owner of the private Leopold Museum, claimed ownership of Wally. But based on probable cause that the painting had been stolen and illegally imported into the United States, ICE's legacy agency, U.S. Customs Service, seized the painting. Thus began an investigation and a 12-year lawsuit into the rightful owner of Portrait of Wally. Lea Bondi Jaray died in 1969. But her estate was compensated on July 20, 2010, when the protracted dispute ended. The Leopold Museum agreed to pay Bondi's estate $19 million in exchange for the painting.
The landmark case may not have come to court at all had it not been for Goldblatt's proactive approach to art-related investigations. Goldblatt led the ICE investigation that spurred Wally's litigious journey that gripped art enthusiasts the world over who watched and waited in suspense over its outcome. Although Goldblatt jokes that her husband "takes full credit for the investigation, the legal actions...everything," because of his comment that fateful winter morning. "Words cannot describe how happy I am about this settlement," said Goldblatt.
"Uncovering the true ownership of this exquisite painting is very gratifying. And because of this case, museums are opening up their inventories and examining their collections for history of Nazi theft."
Goldblatt's dream job began in 1991 when she was working for the U.S. Customs Service. When she saw an opening to investigate lost and stolen treasures, Goldblatt wasted no time inquiring about it. An avid art lover since childhood, Goldblatt welcomed the opportunity to work in this position.
In 1994, Goldblatt attended a conference in which the discussion surrounded lost art during World War II. Given the go-ahead by her supervisor, Goldblatt contacted lawyers, scholars and archivists who had also attended the conference. She offered her investigative services and the rest is history, art history, that is.
Goldblatt represents ICE in the Department of State, Office of Holocaust Art Recovery Working Group. The group is a representation of U.S. experts in the area of Holocaust looted art in the government and private sector.
Goldblatt has conducted countless investigations of artwork with a total value of nearly $60 million. Her knowledge of art history and appreciation has soared. Goldblatt's combination of innate curiosity, investigative savvy and love of art are helping to right at least some of the wrongs committed during the Holocaust as she brings truth of ownership and justice to the art world.