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Warrant Issued in Art Dispute

September 23, 1999

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) _ A federal magistrate has blocked the Museum of Modern Art from sending a painting back to Austria because of claims that Nazis stole it from its Jewish owner.

The move came hours after a state court said the painting could go back.

U.S. Magistrate Judge James Francis issued a seizure warrant late Tuesday for Expressionist artist Egon Schiele’s painting ``Portrait of Wally″ after finding probable cause that it was stolen property.

``It is an important policy of the United States and other countries to return Holocaust-era looted property,″ said a release from U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White, who sought the warrant.

It was not known whether a seizure warrant would be sought for ``Dead City III,″ a second Schiele painting involved in the controversy.

Earlier Tuesday, the state’s highest court cleared the way for the paintings to be returned to the Leopold Foundation of Vienna, Austria. The New York Court of Appeals threw out a subpoena for the works, saying museum art was immune from seizure in criminal or civil proceedings.

The paintings were among more than 100 loaned to the museum. Three days after the exhibit ended last year, Henry Bondi of Princeton, N.J., Kathleen Rief of Vancouver, British Columbia, and Rita Rief of New York City filed claims saying the paintings had been taken from their relatives when Germany annexed Austria in 1938.

The museum argued that it was contractually obligated to return the paintings.

Leopold Foundation board member Elisabeth Leopold said the board was positive that both paintings were legitimate acquisitions and that both had to be returned.

``That will also emerge in the current investigation because it is evident that the picture was not stolen,″ she said.

Bondi said ``Portrait of Wally″ was taken from his late aunt, Lea Bondi, a Jewish-Viennese art dealer who was pressed by a Nazi art dealer to leave the work behind when she fled to London in 1938.

The Riefs said ``Dead City″ was taken from Fritz Grunbaum, who died in a concentration camp.

The paintings were collected by Rudolf Leopold, who sold them to the Austrian government in 1993 and has argued that they were legally acquired.

While the Museum of Modern Art successfully fought the state, it will take a back seat this time. ``The Leopold Foundation must now take the lead in ownership issues,″ museum officials said in a statement.

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