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Attorney's Perseverance Yields a Legal Masterpiece

Randol Schoenberg spent 7 1/2 years pursuing Austria's return of art looted by the Nazis.

January 23, 2006|Anne-Marie O'Connor | Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles attorney Randol Schoenberg was just a boy when he first saw Vienna, the hometown of his grandfather Arnold, the composer. At the national art museum in baroque Belvedere Castle, his mother stood in a roomful of paintings by Gustav Klimt and pointed to the shimmering portrait of a sultry, enigmatic beauty suspended in gold.

Schoenberg never forgot the portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, which was seized by the Nazis in 1938 and delivered to the museum with the salutation "Heil Hitler." Bloch-Bauer's niece, Maria Altmann of Cheviot Hills, was a dear family friend, and he grew up listening to her stories of fleeing the Nazis on foot after her husband was sprung from a concentration camp.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday January 27, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 66 words Type of Material: Correction
Arnold Schoenberg -- An article in Monday's Section A about lawyer Randol Schoenberg said his grandfather, composer Arnold Schoenberg, wrote music for U.S. television and films. The Arnold Schoenberg Center, which maintains archives of the composer, says that although the elder Schoenberg began composing music for the film "The Good Earth," it was never finished and no other film or television music by Schoenberg is known.

"That woman was Maria's aunt," his mother had told him at the museum. "These paintings belong to her family."

Schoenberg, 39, has spent the last 7 1/2 years arguing indefatigably that the art should go to Altmann and four co-heirs. In a few weeks, he will return to Vienna to negotiate the recovery of the portrait and four other Klimt paintings worth perhaps more than $200 million, in what could be one of the most valuable Nazi art restitutions ever.

An Austrian arbitration panel has ordered the government to return the paintings, the dramatic denouement of an arduous legal battle that even Schoenberg's most sympathetic cheerleaders thought he would lose.

"He would never give up," marveled Hubertus Czernin, 50, the Vienna journalist who uncovered the paintings' Nazi paper trail. "Maria is the same type. Her attitude was: 'Those paintings were stolen from my family, and now I will fight.' And Maria couldn't have had a better fighter for that case than Randy."

For Schoenberg -- kinetic, restless and intense, with the boundless snap of a Spencer Tracy character -- the case is far more than a simple legal wrangle, it's an obsession.

He pulls art tomes out of bookshelves at his cluttered West Los Angeles office and points to paintings and sepia photographs of the people who lived this drama. To him, the paintings are a link to the legendary lost world his family and Altmann's shared in the early 1900s, when Vienna rivaled Paris in music, art and intellectual life.

Schoenberg's paternal grandfather, a contemporary of Klimt and Freud, was known for his atonal works: brooding, deeply psychological compositions that then seemed shockingly experimental. His maternal grandfather, composer Eric Zeisl, was born into this world. Adele Bloch-Bauer presided over intellectual salons where Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss mingled with artists and social reformers. When the 1907 Klimt portrait made her a celebrity, people whispered that she and Klimt were lovers.

Such stories were the heartbeat of family lore. This deep sense of destiny turned Schoenberg into an understudy of history, a man ready for the right role to come along.

*

He took up Maria Altmann's case when she called in early 1998. Altmann wanted to talk to his mother about a proposed law in Austria that would allow restitution to Nazi art theft victims. She needed help finding information on the Internet, but Schoenberg found himself volunteering legal advice.

"Maria is the last one left from my grandmother's circle of friends," Schoenberg said. "This is a family very close to us. They're not just casual acquaintances."

Altmann, who will be 90 in February, had known Schoenberg since he was a baby. A widow, she then sold clothes from her home. Now this grand dame of the Austrian exile community and the young upstart lawyer would become confederates in a cause that most people viewed as unpromising, at best.

Tall and elegant, Altmann addresses people she likes as "my darling" and "my love." Schoenberg's public persona could hardly be more different.

Not long after his conversation with Altmann, he flew to Vienna, where "he was the opposite of diplomatic," remembers Austrian journalist Czernin.

"The generation of Jewish victims exiled from Austria never discussed what happened. Their reaction is, 'Let the past be past,' " he said. Later generations "speak openly about the fate of the parents, the mass murder and everything else. Schoenberg talked about the anti-Semitism in Austria in very critical words. I loved it."

The case was a gamble from the start. Austrian courts initially demanded an astronomical $1.8 million deposit as an advance on possible legal costs, which Schoenberg reduced to the still unaffordable $500,000. So he turned to U.S. courts.

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