Pleading legal restraints, the Museum of Modern Art has turned down appeals from two families to hold on to two Egon Schiele paintings whose provenance is clouded by Nazi wartime plundering, choosing instead to ship them as planned to their next destination in Barcelona, Spain.
But rather than laying the matter temporarily to rest, the Modern's response enraged the families and prompted them to step up their activities to reclaim the paintings with entreaties to the State Department and Government officials and possibly pleas in court. "We're going ahead with all guns flaring," said Rita Reif, an heir to one of the works. She said her family was seeking a meeting with the museum's director, Glenn D. Lowry.
The paintings were on view at the Modern as part of "Egon Schiele: The Leopold Collection," a hugely popular traveling exhibition that closed at the Modern yesterday. The works are owned by the Austrian-Government financed Leopold Foundation. It purchased them in 1994 from Dr. Rudolf Leopold, a 72-year-old Viennese ophthalmologist who amassed a collection of some 5,400 works of art, including 250 by Schiele, the Austrian Expressionist who died in 1918.
One painting in the show, "Portrait of Wally," is claimed by the family of Lea Bondi Jaray, 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 other, "Dead City," is claimed by Ms. Reif and her sister-in-law, the heirs of Fritz Grunbaum, a Jewish collector who died at Dachau in 1940. The families wanted the paintings kept in New York until their claims could be evaluated.
But the Modern demurred, citing its contractual obligations to return the paintings to the foundation. "The Museum is clearly not in a position to pass on the factual or legal foundation of your claim," said Stephen W. Clark, an assistant general counsel for the museum, in a letter faxed on Saturday night to Henry S. Bondi, the 76-year-old nephew of Mrs. Bondi. A virtually identical letter was faxed to Ms. Reif, a former reporter for The New York Times who now contributes a column to the newspaper.
Museum officials said they have had extensive discussions with their counterparts at the Leopold Foundation since the claims were lodged last week. "We explored all options with them," said Elizabeth Addison, the Modern's deputy director for marketing and communications. She declined to say whether the Modern had specifically asked to keep the paintings for the time being.
The Modern's letters nonetheless obliquely invited further action, most likely in the courts. "The museum intends to ship the painting to the lender on Jan. 8 or shortly thereafter," it said in closing. "The intervening period should afford you ample time to take such actions as you deem appropriate to protect your interests."
Neither family, however, seemed inclined to go to court now, partly because cultural properties on loan in New York are indemnified against seizure by state and Federal laws. "Going to court is a big decision," Mr. Bondi said.
The two families have other plans. They are asking Stuart E. Eizenstat, the Under Secretary of State for Economic Affairs, for help in getting the Leopold Foundation or the Austrian Government to post a bond for the value of the two paintings. The bond, held by a neutral third party, would insure that the paintings would be returned to the United States after their showing in Barcelona and pending an assessment of the families' claims.
The Reifs plan to present Mr. Lowry and the World Jewish Congress's Commission for Art Recovery with 14 documents supporting their claim of ownership. "The Museum of Modern Art is washing its hands of this matter based on a narrow, tight response to the situation," Ms. Reif said. "They are saying, 'Let the courts decide,' and that's not enough. The museum must make a moral determination on this."