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Wednesday, 13 May, 1998, 22:49 GMT 23:49 UK
US court releases disputed works of art
Families of Holocaust victims seeking to reclaim art looted by the Nazis have received a setback after the Supreme Court in New York ruled that two paintings by the early 20th- century artist Egon Schiele on loan from Vienna were wrongly seized from the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA).

A district attorney had ordered the seizure after two Jewish families claimed the paintings had been looted from their relatives by Nazis during the Second World War.

Rita Reif of New York and Henri Bondi of New Jersey claimed their families, persecuted in the Holocaust, were the rightful owners of the paintings "Bildnis Wally" ("Portrait of Wally") and "Tote Stadt III" ("Dead City III").

They had asked prosecutors to block return of the works to Austria until ownership was resolved.

But acting New York Supreme Court Judge Laura Drager said in her 26-page decision that although the grand jury is not precluded from proceeding with its investigation, "it simply cannot retain the paintings. "

She said that the actual paintings were not needed as evidence in the case - as the prosecutor had argued.

Museum welcomes outcome

MOMA welcomed the decision. In a statement, the museum said it was concerned about resolving ownership of the Schiele paintings and other art looted from Jews by the Nazi regime and that the decision "in no way diminishes the plight of the victims of the Holocaust."

But Jewish groups, campaigning for thousands of looted paintings to be returned, have described it as a setback.

They say if the seizure of the works had been upheld, this case could have set a precedent for thousands of other disputed works of art hanging in galleries around the world.

Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, who had ordered the seizure of the two paintings, said he would appeal the decision. "We do not believe New York should be a safe haven for stolen art," he said.

The paintings belong to the Leopold Foundation, named after the Viennese art collector Rudolf Leopold who sold Schiele's art to the Austrian state in 1994.

The Foundation's lawyer, Stephen Harnik, said his client was "very happy" about the ruling.

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09 Jan 98 | Americas
Holocaust survivors win legal ban
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