The Art of the Matter

updated 03/09/1998 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/09/1998 AT 01:00 AM EST

WHEN RITA REIF LEFT HER MID-town apartment recently to see an exhibit of the late Austrian Expressionist artist Egon Schiele at New York City's Museum of Modern Art, she was about to revisit a painful part of her family's history. "I looked at Schiele's Dead City," says Reif, an Arts-Artifacts columnist for The New York Times. "It is a haunting painting, so vacant and empty it gave me goose bumps."

It also made her hungry for justice. Reif claims that during World War II the Nazis stole Dead City from her late husband's uncle, Fritz Grünbaum, an Austrian-Jewish writer and cabaret actor who died in a concentration camp in 1941, and now she wants the painting returned to his family. Manhattan D.A. Robert M. Morgenthau apparently believes she has a point. On Jan. 8 he issued a subpoena barring the museum from shipping the Schiele back to its owner, the Leopold Foundation in Vienna, pending his completion of a criminal investigation. The painting is going nowhere until at least March 5, when a New York court is to decide whether the subpoena violates a state law prohibiting the seizure of artworks on exhibit in a museum.

Though Morgenthau may have sought to take the side of the angels, he finds himself across the barricades from many in the art community, who believe he has violated the traditional understanding that allows museums to loan one another works of art. "If one museum decided to break that agreement," says MOMA spokeswoman Elizabeth Addison, "that museum would probably not be the recipient of works of art again." But Reif believes her battle for possession would be doomed to failure once the painting is shipped overseas beyond the jurisdiction of U.S. courts.

Reif was inspired to take action last Christmas Eve when she read about a New Jersey family's attempt to reclaim another MOMA-exhibited Schiele that allegedly had been looted by Nazis. (That painting, Portrait of Wally, also has been subpoenaed by Morgenthau.) She and her sister-in-law Kathleen Reif rounded up relatives for moral support. "We talked it over with each of the younger generation," says Rita. "Everybody agreed we had to do something."

After the museum, citing a contractual obligation to the Leopold Foundation, rejected her plea that it hang on to the painting, she hired a lawyer. Reif was unmoved by the foundation's offer to have a panel set up by the World Jewish Congress's Commission for Art Recovery examine the case. "The Austrians had made an unusual offer," says the commission's director, Constance Lowenthal. "They didn't have to do it. Now we have people angry on both sides."

Some MOMA supporters have accused Morgenthau of acting out of political considerations. Others argue that the statute of limitations has expired because the Reifs waited too many years to make their claim. And the Austrian Press Agency published a report in January insisting that the Nazis had not stolen Dead City at all, but that Grünbaum's sister-in-law Mathilde Lukacs had inherited Grünbaum's estate and sold the painting to a Swiss dealer in the 1950s.

Reif remains undaunted. Her ties to the painting are as old as her ties to the family that claims it. When she met Paul Reif at a party in 1947, she was a copy clerk at the now-defunct New York Journal-American, and he was a young composer from Vienna. (They married in 1953 and had two sons, L. Leslie, 42, a writer, and Timothy, 38, a lawyer.) "As we fell in love and spent more time together," says Reif, "I began to hear about Fritz Grünbaum. He sounded like such a decent man." And a brave one. An enthusiastic art collector who owned more than a dozen Schieles, Grünbaum fearlessly lampooned Hitler and the Nazis in his cabaret act up to the moment of his arrest, and she believes he would have supported her crusade. "He was an honest man fighting for a cause," she says, "and attempting to forestall the evil that came to central Europe. This painting is a symbol of that evil."

NINA BURLEIGH in New York City

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