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Patt Morrison Asks: E. Randol Schoenberg -- for the gold Klimt

Los Angeles lawyer E. Randol Schoenberg joined forces with Maria Altmann in a legal battle to reclaim her family's collection of paintings, seized by the Nazis in 1938.

March 17, 2012|Patt Morrison
  • Los Angeles lawyer E. Randol Schoenberg joined forces with Maria Altmann in a legal battle to reclaim her family's collection of paintings by Gustav Klimt, seized by the Nazis in 1938.
Los Angeles lawyer E. Randol Schoenberg joined forces with Maria Altmann… (Francine Orr/ Los Angeles…)

The riches and treasures of Europe vacuumed up by Hitler's Third Reich are still turning up, including some paintings Hitler bought for himself that were just found in a Czech monastery. But most of the Fuhrer's loot was just that: looted. Once in a while, it gets returned to its rightful owners. Los Angeles lawyer E. Randol Schoenberg joined forces with Maria Altmann in a legal battle to reclaim her family's collection of paintings, seized by the Nazis in 1938. The artworks, by Gustav Klimt, included a famous portrait of Altmann's aunt, Adele Bloch-Bauer, that was hanging in plain sight in an Austrian state museum.

The high-stakes, stars-aligned tale of the machinations required to return it (and other works) to the family is told by former Times writer Anne-Marie O'Connor in her new book, "The Lady in Gold," and here by Schoenberg, who says he only became a lawyer because he couldn't find a job in journalism.

Your grandfathers were both composers, both Viennese, both Jewish: Arnold Schoenberg and Erich Zeisl. Both fled the Nazis. So even before this case, you weren't a stranger to this world.

My mom's mom was my link to the past; she's the one who really infused me with an interest and love for the old world of Austrian things, and she was best friends with Maria Altmann. I grew up knowing who Maria was. In 1998, this started, when she called me. She was looking to find out about this new law.

I had seen [the Klimt paintings] in Vienna, the first time when I was probably 11 and we went to the Belvedere museum. My mom said, "See that picture? Your grandmother's best friend Maria Altmann, that's her aunt, Adele Bloch-Bauer." Of course I didn't know any of the history [of the paintings]. But I knew enough of what my own family had gone through, so it was easy for me to dive in and figure out what happened using the documents Maria had and documents found in Vienna. The two sides together told a compelling story.

So it wasn't "I'm just doing this as a favor for my grandma's best friend, Maria"?

I was more like a grandson helping out. She would constantly tell me stories about my grandparents, my great-grandparents. It was very personal. It wasn't just another contract dispute. This was serious. This was about history; getting it right was important.

The [Austrian] minister of education and culture proposed this law to, as she put it, clear the table of Nazi-looted art in [state] museums. It was a very noble goal, and they set up a very broad law, but [the minister] was sure it wouldn't apply to these paintings. I think they had purposely drawn up the law [that] way. When I put it [all] together, I thought, wow, [we] really do have a case, and the next eight years was convincing them.

Some looted objects can be "anonymized" — jewelry can be broken up, like the diamonds the Nazis stole from the Bloch-Bauer family. But looted art is unique and traceable.

The spoils of war. Somehow art fit into the Nazi phenomenon because Hitler was an artist and thought of himself as a great art collector. Of course they were not interested in the Klimt paintings [which didn't meet Nazi artistic standards] but other parts of the collection.

The case was a legal roller coaster, like threading a moving needle.

When the Supreme Court took the case, everyone told me, oh you're definitely going to lose, and that was not news to me. [I thought] if we're going to lose, let's tell the story. What happened [is] going to be a famous story, whether we get [the paintings] back or not.

And then in 2004, you won a 6-3 high court decision on the narrow legal issue of whether Altmann could bring a case in the U.S. about paintings in Austria.

A law said you can sue a foreign state if the case concerned property taken in violation of international law, and if the agency holding the object — in this case the federal museum [the Belvedere Gallery in Austria] — is engaged in commercial activity in the U.S. If you find they're selling a book [here], if they advertise for tourists, if they take American credit cards, you can sue. There was just a million of these little things. [TheU.S. State Department] thought the decision we got was going to be a disaster for other countries. We said it's not going to open up a can of worms, and it didn't.

The Supreme Court decision was a tipping point, but there was more to come.

Luckily the Austrians had had enough of the U.S. legal arena and so we [did] an arbitration in Austria. They ruled against us on one [of the six] paintings, but I had this idea [arbitration] was really the only way we could actually get the paintings back. I thought if I could just focus on the will, I can win.

Adele Bloch-Bauer died in 1925 and in her will expressed her wish that her husband, Ferdinand, donate two Klimt portraits of her to the national museum. But the Nazis confiscated the Bloch-Bauer property in 1938 and Ferdinand died almost broke in 1945.

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