In 1928, Elsa Koditschek, a 43-year-old Viennese widow, bought an unusual landscape painting by the radical Austrian Secession painter Egon Schiele. It was anomalous in that it was a quiet, highly graphic and abstracted village landscape, the artist’s imagined view of his mother’s Czech Republic hometown. Schiele, like his mentor, Gustav Klimt, was mainly known for his controversial portraits of Viennese women.
Both Schiele and Klimt often painted nude or barely clad models, especially in watercolors and ink and charcoal, but Klimt was often sought out by fin de siècle elite patrons for his lush, full-figure portraits of society women in bejeweled and golden garb.
Schiele’s models, such as his mistress and eventual wife, Edith Harms, were earthier types. His portraits were often sexually explicit, his models set in provocative poses displaying full, even engorged genitalia. The artist did not spare himself from sexually graphic representations; he was an obsessive self-portraitist and made drawings and watercolors of himself naked, even masturbating.
It was most unusual that the wife of a successful Jewish banker would acquire any kind of painting from such a notorious artist, one who had even been briefly incarcerated for the alleged corruption of a minor.
Koditschek acquired the Schiele painting in 1928, and it was sold outside her control in 1943, after she fled the Nazis and left it behind.
Colin Moynihan wrote about Koditschek's story in the Oct. 5 issue of The New York Times.
Mrs. Koditschek, a Jew, was allowed to stay on, in an upstairs apartment, a tenant in her own house for about a year, until a deportation edict arrived ordering her to a bleak, uncertain future in a Polish ghetto. She fled instead, leaving behind her life’s possessions including the only major artwork she had ever purchased, a landscape by Egon Schiele.
The painting passed through the hands of several owners after the war. It will be auctioned today by Sotheby’s in New York. The painting’s owner, as well as Koditschek’s heirs, will share the proceeds after Sotheby’s commission, part of the auction house’s ongoing repatriation program. Almost three-quarters of a century after the end of World War II, artworks and other property of Europe’s Jews are still being discovered and adjudicated in the courts and through the art world’s repatriation programs.
Thousands of masterpieces from all of art history, especially early 20th-century works that the Nazis labeled “Degenerate Art,” were appropriated from Jewish collectors, hoarded by Nazi officers and sent to German museums. Many were lost forever in transit or in bombings, collateral damage of the war.
Koditschek’s great-granddaughter, Sarah Whites-Koditschek, along with Lucian Simmons, worldwide head of Sotheby’s restitution department, share the story of Schiele’s painting in a video on Sotheby’s website.
There are many elements of the story that make for compelling reading: the artist’s short and controversial life; the unlikely acquisition of an unusual work; and the amazing, almost made-for-the-movies tale of the woman who, along with the painting, survived the depredations of the war and left a well-documented record of her right of ownership to the work.
Even in the tangled, still evolving record of what happened to the possessions of Europe’s Jews and contemporary efforts to address these crimes, this tale is an uncommon one.
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