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Payoff: Supreme validation

June 11, 2004|Anne-Marie O'Connor | Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles attorney Randol Schoenberg has invested an inordinate amount of his career on a case that, until now, many legal experts considered impossible to win.

For six years, Schoenberg has represented Maria Altmann, an 88-year-old Cheviot Hills woman who is trying to reclaim six valuable Gustav Klimt paintings seized by the Nazis from her uncle in Vienna and now in the possession of the Austrian national museum.

The legal saga has taken him from Vienna to the U.S. Supreme Court where, in February, he argued his contention that U.S. courts have legal jurisdiction over the Klimt case. "I went in there thinking, 'We have very little chance,' " he said.

But the justices ruled 6 to 3 in Schoenberg's favor on Monday, elevating him to that rarefied cadre of attorneys who argue a case before the Supreme Court and prevail.

"It still hasn't sunk in completely that we won," said Schoenberg, an intense 37-year-old who speaks rapid fire, strafing his listener with the details of arcane legal precedents that support elements of his case.

The Supreme Court ruling made Schoenberg's decision two years ago to leave a prestigious law firm to file the lawsuit seem, in hindsight, like a good career move. His law firm at the time did not wish to pursue what it considered a highly speculative contingency case against a foreign government.

"People were skeptical about its prospects, especially on the jurisdiction issue, until this Monday," Schoenberg said. "Some of them still are."

"I remember the words of Randol's first boss: 'Maria, I'm very sorry, we cannot continue on the case because the U.S. marshals are not going to Vienna to take the paintings off the wall,' " Altmann said. "That's when he went on his own."

Schoenberg first won a Los Angeles federal court ruling allowing the case to go forward, then the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the ruling. The high-powered Century City law firm representing Austria must have known it had a dogged adversary. In 1995, Schoenberg represented his family, the heirs of the brilliant Viennese composer Arnold Schoenberg -- his grandfather -- who were upset that USC's Schoenberg Institute was being used for such things as an "Introduction to Concert Music."

A couple of preliminary injunctions later, the Schoenberg archive was relocated from USC to a luxuriously appointed palace near Gustav Mahler's old place in Vienna and granted a million-dollar subsidy.

Unlike when Schoenberg represented such clients as Michael Jackson and Kim Basinger, the art seized by the Nazis was more than just a legal wrangle.

In this case, Schoenberg and Altmann were inextricably bound in the wave of Austrian Jewish migration fleeing the Nazis. Many Vienna Jewish families knew one another -- the father of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein helped Freud escape -- and remained a tightly knit community where they settled. The diaspora brought a host of talented creators and intellectuals to the United States.

Schoenberg's composer grandfather had already met with a less than welcoming climate in Vienna for his ultramodern atonal compositions, as well as the anti-Semitism that drove him out of Berlin.

Schoenberg's maternal grandfather was another Vienna composer, Eric Zeisl, who eventually wrote scores for Los Angeles films and such television shows as "Lassie Come Home."

Maria Altmann's husband, Fritz, who dreamed of being an opera singer but settled on becoming an engineer, was a friend of Zeisl, and Maria was close to Zeisl's wife, Gertrud.

Schoenberg's father, Ronald Schoenberg of Brentwood, became a judge. While his composer grandfather died in 1951, before Schoenberg was born, the deep sense of shared destiny in the family was underlined even by the anagram of their names -- Arnold, Ronald and Randol.

"I always felt really lucky to have grandfathers who left so much behind even though I never knew them," Schoenberg said. "I felt it was so fortunate to grow up and be a grandchild of these amazing people. I remember pretty early on starting to listen to my grandfather's music a lot. It really has helped me. I have an open ear. I have one bias from it: I tend to favor complexity over simplicity."

That bias became a leitmotif: at Princeton, Schoenberg did his undergraduate thesis on combinatorial set theory, a mathematics thesis that was tangentially related to Arnold Schoenberg's 12-tone atonal musical compositions, whose deeply psychological components influenced everyone from Aaron Copland to the composers of film scores.

Altmann too had a complex link to the case: Her family was dispossessed by the Nazis, and when they managed to get her husband out of Dachau, they fled over the German border to safety. Two of the six contested Klimt paintings were portraits of her famous art patron aunt, Adele Bloch-Bauer.

Not to mention her personal ties to Schoenberg. "I've known Randol since he was a baby," Altmann said.

Schoenberg seems to have inherited the more cerebral muses of his composer grandfather.

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