Michael Rubinstein, Esq.
On March 6th, The Wall Street Journal reported that an Austrian court had, “rejected a restitution claim for a sprawling Gustav Klimt fresco from the heirs of its prewar owner, a decision that keeps one of the artist’s most important surviving works in the country.” It was in the field of stolen art recovery that E. Randol Schoenberg, an LA attorney, first made his name. Since 2007, however, Schoenberg has also served as President of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust (LAMOTH).
Schoenberg was a driving force in the building and development of LAMOTH’s award-winning campus in Pan Pacific Park, which opened its doors in 2010. How Schoenberg fell into this important role is a fascinating story that ties back to his important work in recovering Nazi looted artwork.
Schoenberg, or Randy as he is known, is the grandson of Austrian refugees who escaped Vienna as the war began. Both of his grandfathers – Eric Zeisl and Arnold Schoenberg – were famous Austrian musical composers whose works are still studied today. Randy’s father Ronald, now retired, was a Los Angeles Municipal Court judge for over twenty years, and both Randy and his sister are attorneys too. But it was one legal case that defined Randy’s legal career. The case pitted Randy’s client, Maria Altmann, against foreign governments, and drew international attention to the issue of artwork looted by the Nazis during the Holocaust.
Maria Altmann, who died in 2011, was Austrian-Jewish and escaped Vienna and moved to Los Angeles in the early 1940s. She was the niece of a wealthy Viennese Jewish sugar tycoon named Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer. He owned several famous paintings created by Gustav Klimt in the early 1900s. Ferdinand’s wife Adele died in 1925, and in her will she asked Ferdinand to donate the Klimt paintings to an Austrian museum after his own passing, which would not come until 1945. Maria Altmann’s case would center on the interpretation of her Aunt Adele’s will and the request that Ferdinand donate the paintings to the Austrian museum.
In 1938, the Nazis stripped Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer of his sugar empire, and seized his real estate and artwork collection, including the Klimt paintings. Ferdinand escaped to Switzerland, where he died destitute just as the war ended. By this time, Ferdinand’s Klimt paintings had made their way to the Austrian museum after passing through the hands of high-ranking Nazi officials. When Ferdinand’s estate tried to retrieve the paintings after the war, the Austrian museum refused to return them, citing Adele’s will. Since Ferdinand had effectively carried out Adele’s wishes by “donating” them to the Austrian museum, they would not be returned.
Almost six decades later, in 1998, allegations began to surface that the Austrian museum was displaying looted Jewish artwork in its exhibits. The allegations were confirmed when a journalist named Hubertus Czernin authored a series of articles exposing the history of the Klimt paintings acquired by the museum. In response, the Austrian government appointed a committee to investigate, and where applicable, offer restitution to the descendants of Austrian Jews who had artwork stolen by the Nazis during the war. Maria Altmann was the only surviving heir of Ferdinand and Adele Bloch-Bauer. She read about the new committee and its proposal, so she called her friend’s grandson, a 31-year-old attorney named Randy Schoenberg.
Randy agreed to look into Maria’s case. He filed the necessary paperwork with the Austrian committee, but for months received no response. In June 1999, the committee informed Randy that it would not return the Klimt paintings to Maria Altmann, citing Adele’s will and donative intent to the museum. Randy and Maria considered suing the Austrian museum in the Austrian courts, but the court fees and costs were prohibitive. Undeterred, Randy filed Maria’s lawsuit against the Austrian museum in federal court in Los Angeles. He argued that the Bloch-Bauer’s Klimt paintings were seized in violation of international law; that Adele’s 1925 will was not binding; and the Klimt paintings should be returned to Maria.
Before the Court could interpret Adele’s will, it had to decide a major procedural issue. Under a federal law called the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act of 1976, a foreign government could not be sued in American courts, unless certain exceptions were applicable. Those exceptions were applicable in Maria Altmann’s case, but the issue was whether the 1976 law retroactively applied to events that occurred before the law’s enactment.
No court had ever been asked to answer whether the law could be retroactively applied. The Austrian government argued that since any illegal seizure of Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer’s property and artwork occurred in the late 1930s, Maria Altmann could not use the 1976 law to compel Austria’s participation in the case in American courts. Randy countered that the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act applied to all claims, and did not have time limitations. Thus, Austria could not use the law as a procedural tool to avoid dealing with the underlying claims that it violated international law when it seized the Bloch-Bauers’ property.
The trial court agreed with Randy, but Austria promptly appealed. At this point, the case began to generate attention, and Randy’s law firm told him to drop it. Randy refused to leave his client, so he opened his own law firm and continued pursuing the case. Shortly thereafter, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the lower court’s ruling that the 1976 law was retroactive. Austria tried one last-ditched effort to dismiss Maria’s case by appealing it to the United States Supreme Court. Incredibly, the U.S. State Department wrote a brief supporting Austria’s position, arguing that it would be improper to force foreign governments to be hauled to American courts for events that happened decades earlier. Maria was disappointed that her own government supported Austria’s position and not hers.
Most legal scholars expected Randy to lose Maria Altmann’s case at the Supreme Court. However, in a stunning 6-3 decision, the Court held in Republic of Austria v. Altmann that the 1976 law was retroactive. That meant that, after five years litigating this novel procedural issue, Maria Altmann could finally sue Austria in federal court. Unfortunately for Maria, who was 88-years-old at the time, it did not mean that she had won the release of her family’s paintings. Randy and Maria began litigating the case again from square one, until an Austrian mediator proposed that Randy and Maria arbitrate the case in Austria in 2005.
As Randy explains, the Austrian government was stalling the case, hoping that Maria would die before a decision could be made. By agreeing to arbitrate the case in front of a panel of three Austrian judges on Austrian soil, Randy and Maria forced Austria’s hand. This put the ball in the Austrian government’s court, and prevented any further tactics aimed at delaying the case. Randy urged Maria to agree to arbitration, and when she did, Randy traveled to Vienna for the arbitration hearing.
The arbitration panel had to decide whether Adele Bloch-Bauer’s will was binding on her husband Ferdinand. The will asked Ferdinand to donate the Klimt paintings to the museum, but it did not instruct him to do so. The law distinguishes between a request and an instruction in a will, so Randy argued that Adele’s request was not binding on Ferdinand. Since the request was not binding, Ferdinand was under no obligation to give the paintings to the museum. Further, any donative intent on the part of the Bloch-Bauers would have been erased by the Austrian government’s complicity with the Nazis in the seizure of the Bloch-Bauer’s property. Therefore, argued Randy, the Klimt paintings belonged to Ferdinand’s heir, Maria Altmann.
In another stunning victory, the Austrian arbitrators ruled 3—0 in Maria Altmann’s favor, and they ordered the museum to return the five Klimt paintings to her in Los Angeles. Maria received the paintings in 2006, and arranged for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to display them for a brief period. She later sold the paintings to various private art collectors for sums exceeding $300 million, and her 8-year mission to retrieve her paintings illegally seized by the Nazis was achieved.
Randy’s participation in Maria Altmann’s case vindicated a great historical injustice. Even though Maria died in 2011, her case continues to be used as precedent by other courts in pending artwork litigation across the country. Several books and films about her case have been produced, including the upcoming film, “Woman In Gold” which will be released on April 3rd.
Randy’s success with Maria’s case also allowed him and his wife Pamela to focus on philanthropy and service to the Jewish community. The Schoenbergs provided the initial seed grant for LAMOTH’s building campaign, and Randy continues to serve as the President of the museum. He is still active in Holocaust education, and continues to consult on artwork litigation as an expert in the field. The Los Angeles Jewish community is fortunate to benefit from the leadership, service, and dedication of E. Randol Schoenberg.
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