How Lawyer Schoenberg Won Klimt for Jewish Owner, Family Friend
July 27 (Bloomberg) -- Thanks to Randol Schoenberg, Adele Bloch-Bauer
taken up residence in New York's Neue Galerie. He's the lawyer who spent
years fighting the Austrian government to return the iconic Gustav Klimt
portrait -- looted by the Nazis in 1938 -- to the rightful owner, Adele's
niece, Maria Altmann, now 90.
Schoenberg is the grandson of Viennese-born composer Arnold Schoenberg,
fled from Nazi Europe to New York and Boston before finally settling in Los
Angeles, where he died in 1951.
I spoke to the 39-year-old lawyer, balding with blue eyes, at Bloomberg's
New York headquarters.
Hilferty: Had you known Maria Altmann before you took up the battle?
Schoenberg: She's an old family friend. Her husband, Fritz, and my mother's
father were already friends in Vienna in the '30s. Both families fled the
Nazis and ended up in Los Angeles around 1942. So my mom grew up with
Maria's kids as friends. I joke Maria has known me since my mother was in
Hilferty: It was a long battle retrieving this painting, plus four other
Klimts. When did you start?
Schoenberg: Maria called me in September 1998 to ask about a new law
proposed in Austria designed to return looted artworks.
Hilferty: What was the biggest hurdle?
Schoenberg: Going to the U.S. Supreme Court was very daunting, because
were trying to establish that it was permissible to sue a foreign state to
recover property taken 60 years ago, and nobody had ever done that before.
That seemed like an impossible task.
Hilferty: But you prevailed. Then what?
Austria's Mona Lisa
Schoenberg: We still had to litigate the case. Ultimately we entered
arbitration agreement with Austria in 2005. So I had to go to Austria and
argue the case's merits, mostly in German, which thankfully I could speak a
Hilferty: You finally got a unanimous decision in your favor. Who in
Austrian government was your big adversary?
Schoenberg: The whole government. Austria is a small country with only
population of 8 million. The Bloch-Bauer portrait is their Mona Lisa, their
most famous painting by their most famous artist. It's on the cover of their
guide book of their National Gallery. Everybody was talking about it in
Hilferty: Ronald Lauder paid $135 million for this painting. Has Maria
Altmann's life been changed?
Schoenberg: Maria has come full circle, because she grew up in the lap
luxury in a very wealthy family in Vienna, comparable to Ronald Lauder's,
but lost it all. She ended up selling dresses and became middle class. Now
she's 90 and again very wealthy. As for me, it certainly has been a terrific
experience. I doubt I'll ever get an opportunity to top it.
Hilferty: Randol is an anagram of your grandfather's name, Arnold. Was
Schoenberg: I blame my parents for that. My father's name is also an
anagram, Ronald. And so are the middle names of my three siblings: Roland,
Lorand and Raldon. The only possibilities left are Dranol, Orland and
Dorlan, so we had to stop that tradition.
Hilferty: This story has an epic sweep and would make a terrific movie.
Schoenberg: For sure. You have three different dramatic possibilities:
1900 Vienna scene with the sex and intrigue and art; then the Nazis and
looting, not to mention Reinhard Heydrich, who drafted the Final Solution,
and was installed in the castle Maria's uncle owned outside of Prague.
Meanwhile, the railroad had taken over his house in Vienna and from there
they deported 60,000 Austrian Jews.
And then you have this political thriller, when a terrific journalist,
late Hubertus Czernin, uncovers the fact that there were all these looted
paintings in Austrian collections. That led to the law that ultimately
prevailed in Maria's case.
Hilferty: That's where you come in. Who should play you?
Schoenberg: I liked Tom Cruise in ``A Few Good Men,'' but we need someone
even younger to really pull off this story. I've aged considerably, along
with Cruise, during the timeline of this case.
(Robert Hilferty is a critic for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed
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Robert Hilferty at email@example.com.