Dealer With the Devil

The correspondence, consisting of typed and handwritten notes and letters between Kallir and the Waldmüller portrait’s owner, a collector named Anna von Vivenot, have been held for decades in Vienna, first in the Neue Galerie’s archives and then at the Austrian Gallery in the Belvedere palace. They were discovered by a researcher working for Mr. Dowd. Mr. Dowd has doggedly pursued any lead, no matter how seemingly tangential or faint, in an effort to prove that Kallir and his gallery sold art looted from Jews, including one of his clients.

“Showing a relationship that goes from Otto Kallir to Adolf Hitler would turn the entire Austrian and German Expressionism art world on its head,” Mr. Dowd said. “This blows a hole in [Kallir’s reputation] and we will see the house of cards start to crumble.” So far, Mr. Dowd has failed to prove anything in court, and Ms. Kallir has referred to his various subpoenas as a “witch hunt.” Mr. Dowd rejects the charge. “I am defending a lawsuit. Conducting a witch hunt against Otto Kallir is the furthest thing from my mind and utterly absurd,” he said.

This is not the first time that Kallir’s reputation has been questioned as a result of his associations in Austria. In November 1941, J. Edgar Hoover himself ordered an investigation into rumors that Kallir, who was active in Austrian refugee politics, had Nazi connections. Their report was inconclusive, but a subsequent report by the precursor of the C.I.A. exonerated him of any and all wrongdoing.

Then, as now, all the controversy circled around a Waldmüller portrait: one of the fair-skinned and languid young women whom the artist often depicted wearing bemused expressions and billowing white dresses.

This is the painting Hitler wanted.

“Hitler believed that Waldmüller and others were underappreciated, undervalued, and that some day they would be in museums and regarded like a Rembrandt,” said Jonathan Petropoulos, author of Art as Politics in the Third Reich and The Faustian Bargain: The Art World in Nazi Germany. “Waldmüller is definitely a favorite painter of Hitler and other Nazi leaders.”

In 1937, Kallir borrowed the painting from von Vivenot for an exhibit in the gallery of Friedrich Welz, a Salzburg art dealer, who later revealed himself as an enthusiastic Nazi supporter. As collateral, Kallir gave von Vivenot the painting’s insurance value of 2,000 Austrian schillings, according to the documents. Plans for the exhibit fell apart, and Kallir tried to return the painting and reclaim his money.

But with the Nazis threatening to invade Austria, von Vivenot stalled, and on March 11, 1938, hours before Hitler’s troops marched into Austria, Kallir begrudgingly extended the deadline on the loan.

“I need the money,” Kallir wrote.

The situation in Austria was becoming dire. Over the next month, Nazis arrested tens of thousands of Austrians and stripped Jews and political opponents of the Anschluss of their voting rights. Kallir, a financial backer of the deposed chancellor, Kurt Schuschnigg, was in trouble on both counts. On April 10, Austrians ratified their annexation by Germany with a nearly 100 percent vote.

The balance of power had dramatically shifted, and Kallir had an arrest warrant against him for financially supporting Schuschnigg. He made plans to flee.

On April 13, as Kallir packed his belongings, booked a train to Switzerland and made arrangements for his longtime secretary to take over his gallery—a so-called “friendly Aryanization”—he received another letter from his debtor. Now von Vivenot demanded the painting be sold for 6,500 schillings, 4,500 schillings more than its original price. And she had a specific buyer in mind. “On behalf of my mother, I am giving you the small Waldmüller portrait ‘Young Girl,’” wrote von Vivenot’s son in the letter. He concluded, “It is a precondition that the painting becomes the possession of Imperial Chancellor Adolf Hitler.”