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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

It would be years before anyone got around to addressing the issues at the heart of the case. Austria claimed Bloch-Bauer asked for her paintings to go to the national gallery upon her husband's death, in a request before she died of meningitis at 43 in 1925. Schoenberg argued that her request was not a will, that her husband, Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, actually owned the paintings, and that Adele would never have donated the paintings to the Nazis. Ferdinand escaped to Switzerland and tried to get the art back before he died in 1945, a few months after the war ended. He willed his stolen estate to Altmann and two other nowdeceased heirs.

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.

The law firms Schoenberg worked for saw the Bloch-Bauer case as a minefield of legal impossibilities.

"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 take the paintings off the wall' " in Austria, Altmann said.

So Schoenberg started his own law firm, just a few weeks before the birth of his second child, Nathan, in July 2000. That August, he filed the Bloch-Bauer demand in Los Angeles federal courts.

The first two years in private practice, he hardly made any money. His new digs were smaller, with less staff. He and his wife got financial help from their parents, and they saved money on baby-sitters by staying home at night.

Their children have heard about the Klimt affair their whole lives.

"My daddy won a big case," announced Dora, a 7-year-old with long hair and bangs, as her father washed dinner dishes in their Brentwood house near the San Diego Freeway.

"Daddy, when are we going to get the money? All of us!" asked his grinning son, Nathan, 5, spreading his arms wide to suggest largesse. (His third child, Joey, is 20 months old.)

Schoenberg laughed: For years, he and his wife, Pamela, have answered requests for toys by telling the children to ask after they won the case -- a good stalling technique since victory seemed dubious.

Austria had limitless resources to drag the case out on technicalities. When U.S. District Judge Florence-Marie Cooper ruled in 2001 that the case could go forward here, the Austrians appealed, arguing U.S. courts lacked jurisdiction.

"They delay, delay, delay, hoping I will die," Altmann sighed then, in her living room, dominated by a reproduction of the Bloch-Bauer portrait.

When the 9th Circuit Court upheld the right to hear the case in U.S. courts, the Austrians asked for a stay, arguing that the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act protected them.

In October 2003, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case. A business mogul who had befriended Altmann offered to pay for former Judge Robert Bork to argue before the justices, according to Altmann's son, Peter.

"She was under a lot of pressure to pick someone who had argued before the Supreme Court," he said. "But Randy had the passion and knew this case inside and out. Mom said, 'No, I'm staying with Randy.' "

*

Aside from his deep knowledge of the case, Schoenberg was armed with their shared sense of outrage. Vienna's flowering came 50 years after the relaxation of restrictions on Jewish urbanization. In just one or two generations, Jewish families had become cultural leaders.

Their rapid rise was snuffed out just as quickly by another ascending Austrian, Adolf Hitler. Composers Zeisl and Schoenberg fled into exile and rebuilt their lives, writing music for U.S. television and films. Zeisl's father chose to stay and died with his wife in a death camp.

The exiles' lives intertwined in Los Angeles. Altmann was a close friend of composer Zeisl's wife. When the Zeisls' daughter, Barbara, got cold feet about her wedding to Randol's father -- Ronald Schoenberg, notable later as a Los Angeles judge -- one of Altmann's sons talked Barbara through it.

Randol, the oldest of Barbara and Ronald's four children, was born the day before his composer grandfather's birthday, and his name, like his father's, is an anagram of the letters that spell Arnold.

"I remember pretty early on starting to listen to my grandfather's music," he says. "I have one bias from it: I tend to favor complexity over simplicity."

Schoenberg would need his most cerebral muses for the Supreme Court.

On Feb. 25, 2004, he put on his everyday black suit -- the one that fit -- and as usual, didn't eat breakfast. As he and Altmann headed to the chambers, "I almost had a gallows humor," he said. "No one thought I could win, so I had nothing to lose."

A turning point came when the attorney representing Austria argued that Vienna believed it was shielded from lawsuits in the U.S. over expropriated art.

"I don't know that we protect expectations of the sort you're talking about," Justice Antonin Scalia replied.

Then came the waiting, which Schoenberg said was "agony."

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