Attorney’s Perseverance Yields a Legal Masterpiece
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.
“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.
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.
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.”
Finally, in June of that year, the Supreme Court announced its 6-3 ruling in his favor, saying the case could go forward in U.S courts. But then, last May, Schoenberg made another seeming roll of the dice, accepting an offer to let an Austrian panel conduct arbitration that both sides agreed to accept. “When I heard that, I was sure you would lose,” an Austrian journalist told him on speakerphone last week.
“I was not confident about a U.S. trial,” Schoenberg explained, behind a desk blanketed with papers. “Even if we won, they would appeal,” he said -- meaning the case could outlive Altmann. “And how would we get the paintings? So far, the arguments had been on technicalities. I had faith that if an impartial panel actually looked at the facts of the case, they would rule in our favor.”
But doubts plagued him a week ago Sunday, as he waited for news. A friend had beaten him at chess by taking a pawn. That night, he lost hand after hand at poker with his buddies, leaving $60 on the table, and when he left, “I was very dejected,” he said.
He got to bed after midnight, picking up the BlackBerry on his nightstand and checking it one last time. There was a new message from Austria. It was over. He had won.