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Today's Paper:  Holocaust art case hits home for plaintiff's lawyer
Altmann, 88, of Los Angeles is seeking to recover six paintings, now valued at $150 million from Austria.
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Mar. 2, 2004
Holocaust art case hits home for plaintiff's lawyer
Los Angeles

"I feel that I gave my best performance at the right time and in the right place," said a jubilant E. Randol Schoenberg.

Schoenberg, 37, represented Maria V. Altmann, 88, of Los Angeles, who is seeking to recover six paintings, now valued at $150 million, by Austrian artist Gustav Klimt, including a stunning portrait of her aunt, Adele Bloch-Bauer.

His performance didn't win him an Oscar, but something he felt was infinitely more important, an appearance before the US Supreme Court.

The West Los Angeles attorney, partner in a two-man law firm, was pleading a case he had pursued for nearly six years, and against formidable opposition. On the other side was not only a nationally known law firm with 600 lawyers, but also the US Department of Justice and the government of Austria.

The paintings were confiscated by the Nazis when they took over the Bloch-Bauer mansion in Vienna, and the rest of Austria, in 1938. They are now in the hands of the Austrian Gallery, which claims that Bloch-Bauer had willed the paintings to it before her death.

Altmann contests this claim, but the Supreme Court hearing on February 25, the first art theft case of the Nazi era to reach the highest court, revolved around a more fundamental legal question.

"The basic issue is whether a foreign country can be sued in an American court," said Prof. Michael Bazyler of the Whittier Law School, whose recent book Holocaust Justice analyzes the Altmann case.

Schoenberg answers yes, and two lower courts agreed. But the US government, backing the Austrian claim, fears that if the Supreme Court upholds this position, it could be sued in foreign courts and lead to a flood of World War II property claims.

Scott Cooper of the Proskauer Rose law firm did not respond to a request for comment.
The Supreme Court will not rule on the case until the end of June, but if it favors Altmann's plea, the case will be returned to a Los Angeles Superior Court judge, who will decide to whom the paintings actually belong.
For Schoenberg, the grandson of two world-famous Viennese composers, Arnold Schoenberg and Eric Zeisl, the David vs. Goliath case goes beyond prestige and money.

"Having grown up in an Austrian Jewish exile family, which had close friendship ties with the Altmann family in Vienna, the case has deep emotional and personal meaning for me," he said.

Two days before the Supreme Court hearing, another case rooted in the Holocaust era and also centering on federal vs. state jurisdiction unfolded in a Los Angeles court.
It pitted survivors Manny Steinberg and Dr. Jack Brauns, both in their late 70s, against the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims (ICHEIC) and its chairman, former US secretary of state Lawrence Eagleburger.

Steinberg, Brauns, and their attorney, William Shernoff, had earlier filed suit in a California court, charging ICHEIC with unfair business practices. They accused it of being in league with Assicurazioni Generali of Italy, one of Europe's largest insurance companies, to stonewall, deny, or lower 60-year-old justified insurance policy claims.

ICHEIC countered by filing a motion for dismissal, but lost when US District Judge Ronald S.W. Lew ordered the case returned to a California Superior court.
Underlying the legal wrangling about which court should try the case was an important fact of litigation, said Shernoff.

"We have found that the judiciary in state courts, particularly in California, is sympathetic to survivors, while federal courts are more disposed toward the insurance companies," he said.

Bazyler observed that the "threshold question" of which court has jurisdiction in a given case may determine 90 percent of the outcome. "Once the jurisdiction is decided, the parties usually settle," he said.

Attorney Constantinos Panagopoulos of New York, defending ICHEIC, said in a phone interview that his client had been "diligent" in processing survivor claims and that he would vigorously contest the survivors' charges in California courts.