Lawyer Takes on Looted Art, Austria

In one of the most complex legal battles in the annals of Holocaust restitution, centering on the return of art looted by the Nazis to their rightful owners, E. Randol Schoenberg is stationed on the front lines.

The stakes are enormous. In the biggest collective art theft of all time, Hitler’s minions seized up to 600,000 important works between 1933 and 1945, according to a recent report in The New York Times.

If one includes all art objects, books, Judaica, silver pieces and other valuables, the Nazis stole 10.7 million items in all of Europe, worth more than $37 billion today, the same article estimates.

A current case, which has drawn wide attention, pits Schoenberg against the government of Austria. There is some historic irony in the confrontation, since the 36-year old Brentwood lawyer is the grandson of the pathbreaking Austrian Jewish composer Arnold Schoenberg, often dubbed "the father of modern music."

Schoenberg, the lawyer, represents Maria V. Altman, an 87-year-old resident of Cheviot Hills, who is seeking to recover six paintings by the early 20th century Viennese painter Gustav Klimt. The paintings, valued at $150 million, include a stunning portrait of her aunt, Adele Bloch-Bauer.

The Austrian government, which holds the paintings, is contesting the claim. Last year, Schoenberg scored a major victory when an appeals court in San Francisco ruled that a foreign government could be held to answer in the United States for a Holocaust-based claim.

But the two-and-a-half year old case is far from over. The Austrian government is appealing the decision and, to Schoenberg’s dismay, the U.S. administration is backing the Austrians on the grounds that a sovereign foreign state is immune to lawsuits in American courts. The case might end up in the U.S. Supreme Court.

Last December, Schoenberg opened up another front by seeking to recover a $10 million Picasso oil painting for the Berkeley-based grandson of a Berlin woman who owned it before World War II.

The 1922 painting, "Femme en Blanc" ("Woman in White"), was "confiscated" by the Nazis in 1940. After the war, by a circuitous route via French and American art dealers, the Picasso eventually became the property of a Chicago art patron, who is fighting the grandson’s claim.

Besides these headline cases, Schoenberg has advised hundreds of Jewish families from Austria on their restitution rights, usually as a free service, but he earns his bread and butter through more mundane business litigation.

"It is enormously time-consuming to pursue the art recovery cases — I received my first call from Maria Altman in the Klimt case in 1998 — and enormously expensive, running into millions," said Schoenberg, sitting in his high-rise office on Wilshire Boulevard. "So you can only initiate an action if the paintings are immensely valuable. You’re not going to sue over a looted $50 mezuzah."

"Randy" Schoenberg has the rare distinction of being the grandson of two eminent 20th century composers, both of whom fled the Nazis and settled in Los Angeles.

On his mother’s side, his grandfather was Eric Zeisl, best known for his "Requiem Ebraico," composed in 1945 when he learned that his father had perished in a concentration camp. Zeisl also wrote music for a number of Hollywood movies.

But because Randy’s last name is Schoenberg, the young lawyer is most closely identified with his other grandfather, fervently admired, and sometimes damned, for his development of atonal music and the 12-tone technique.

Arnold Schoenberg, who spent the last 17 years of his life in Los Angeles and taught at UCLA and USC, was largely ignored by the classical music world in the 1930s and ’40s. But since his death in 1951, there has been a major rediscovery and appreciation of his works.

"I run into people who are ecstatic to meet Arnold’s grandson and who worship and love him," said the lawyer, who was born well after his grandfather’s death. "There are others who hate his music, but I doubt if they know all his works. He wrote so much, 15 hours worth if you play it all, there’s something a music lover is bound to like.

"It’s funny, people who would hesitate to give an opinion on paintings or literature will instantly pronounce judgment on a piece of music."

Arnold Schoenberg had a stormy relationship with his ancestral faith. As a young man, he converted to Lutheranism and then reconverted to Judaism in 1933, when Hitler came to power.

He predicted the Holocaust with prophetic clarity and eventually became a utopian Zionist, whose opera, "Moses und Aron," expressed his faith in his people’s destiny.

Randy Schoenberg himself grew up in a nonobservant environment, but since his marriage to Pamela, and the birth of their two young kids who attend Sinai Temple preschool, the family has established a kosher home.

"Being Jewish has played such a major part in the history of my family," mused Schoenberg, an ardent genealogy researcher. "I am deeply involved in our culture, history and philosophy and I try to incorporate them in my personal and professional lives."