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Court Rules on Museum Art’s Return

September 22, 1999

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) _ The Museum of Modern Art cleared a key legal hurdle this week in its bid to send two paintings back to Austria, despite claims they were stolen by the Nazis from their Jewish owners.

In a 6-1 ruling Tuesday, the Court of Appeals threw out a grand jury subpoena ordering the New York City museum not to return Expressionist artist Egon Schiele’s ``Dead City III″ and ``Portrait of Wally″ to the Leopold Foundation in Vienna.

Museum officials said they support efforts to recover stolen art but feared the subpoena could have a chilling effect on art loans among museums.

``This is a victory for all the people and museums of our state because it means that New York will continue to be the cultural center of our world,″ MOMA officials said in a statement.

The paintings were among more than 100 loaned to MOMA by the Leopold Foundation.

Three days after MOMA’s exhibit ended in 1998, Henry Bondi of Princeton, N.J., Kathleen Rief of Vancouver, British Columbia, and Rita Rief of New York filed claims saying the paintings had been taken from their relatives when Germany annexed Austria in 1938.

Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau then subpoenaed the two works, requiring that they be kept in the United States while his office investigated the claims.

MOMA argued that it was contractually obligated to return the paintings. The museum also argued that state law bars any interference _ by anyone for any reason _ with art loaned to New York institutions by foreign entities.

Prosecutors maintained that the law historically applied only to civil proceedings, not criminal inquiries. However, the appeals court ruled Tuesday that state law makes no exception for criminal investigations.

``We think the Court of Appeals is just plain wrong,″ said Morgenthau, who plans on asking state lawmakers to change the law.

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

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