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A lawyer's favor led to lengthy art battle
Tuesday, November 7, 2006
By BRIAN ABERBACK
STAFF WRITER

TEANECK -- When a Los Angeles lawyer was asked to give legal advice to a family friend about some long-lost artwork, he did not envision a seven-year odyssey during which he would sue a foreign government and argue before the U.S. Supreme Court.

That's exactly what happened to E. Randol Schoenberg, who has become distinguished for his effort returning works of art looted by the Nazis to their rightful owners.

"This happens to be one of the few things we can still do 60 years later to right the wrongs [of the Holocaust]," Schoenberg said Monday, speaking before some 100 students at Torah Academy of Bergen County.

Schoenberg, 40, is in town for the auction of four of the five paintings he recovered from the Austrian government for Maria Altmann, his grandmother's friend. Altmann fled to Holland from Austria in 1938 as the Nazis annexed her homeland.

Altmann's aunt, Adele Bloch-Bauer, the original owner of the paintings, had died a decade earlier. The works were looted from the home of her husband, Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer. He had fled Austria before the Nazis arrived.

The four portrait and landscape works, by early 20th-century impressionist-symbolist Gustav Klimt, will be on the block at Christie's in Manhattan on Wednesday. They are expected to command upward of $135 million in total.

Schoenberg's journey began in the spring of 1998, when Altmann, who is now 90, discovered that she might have legal right to her aunt's paintings, which were on display in an Austrian national gallery.

The ensuing case focused on the wording in Adele Bloch-Bauer's will. Schoenberg initially planned to file suit in Austria. That plan was jettisoned when he learned that he would have to pay nearly $2 million to sue, because filing fees in Austria are based on a percentage of the value of what's at stake in the case.

Schoenberg then took the risky proposition of suing Austria from American soil. He cited several exceptions to the U.S. law that states you cannot sue a foreign government.

Students said they were impressed by Schoenberg's passion and persistence.

"He went against the odds and worked hard for years to get [the paintings] back," said Mordechai Gilbert, 16, a junior. "He gave up a portion of his life."

The lawsuit was challenged by Austria and the U.S. State Department; Schoenberg said Austria lobbied the State Department for aid, fearing the precedent that such a victory would bring.

Eventually the case made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Though legal experts gave him little chance, Schoenberg won a 6-3 decision. His elation was tempered by the realization that he had won only the right to sue Austria; he still did not have the paintings. But the victory was enough to force settlement talks, which led to a resolu- tion earlier this year.

The five paintings were returned to Altmann in March. Besides those on auction, a portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer was sold to cosmetics mogul Ronald S. Lauder and is on display at the Neue Gallery in Manhattan.

Schoenberg has since been involved with other cases involving Nazi-looted art. He won a $6.5 million settlement in a case concerning a Picasso painting and a $3 million settlement regarding a work by Canaletto.

He has been honored by the American Jewish Congress and will be recognized by the Anti-Defamation League later this year.

Schoenberg said the money and accolades are not as important as keeping alive the stories behind the looting of the artwork, the stories of the Jewish families who owned the works, the stories of World War II and the Holocaust.

"I told [Altmann] that even if we lost, it would be great because we would be getting the story out," Schoenberg said. "The story needs to be told and retold."

E-mail: aberback@northjersey.com

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NYC judge stops sale of Picasso painting worth up to $60 million
By LARRY NEUMEISTER
Associated Press Writer

November 6, 2006, 8:07 PM EST
NEW YORK -- A judge on Monday temporarily blocked the highly anticipated auction of one of Pablo Picasso's works worth up to $60 million while he decides if a wealthy Berlin banker of Jewish descent was forced to sell the painting by the Nazis during World War II.

U.S. District Judge Jed S. Rakoff issued the order three days after Julius H. Schoeps, an heir to banker Paul von Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, filed a lawsuit in Manhattan to stop the sale of "Portrait de Angel Fernandez de Soto" by an art foundation started by Broadway musical composer Andrew Lloyd Webber. He blocked the sale at least until a hearing Tuesday morning.

The lawsuit to stop the sale of the painting of Angel Fernandez de Soto, scheduled for Wednesday at Christie's auction house in Manhattan, was filed under seal on Friday and was unsealed Monday. The painting of de Soto, who shared a studio with Picasso, was to be sold by the Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber Art Foundation, a London-based charity.

In the lawsuit, Schoeps sought to be declared the lawful owner of the painting and for the foundation to be forced to turn it over as restitution.

The oil-on-canvas painting, signed and dated in 1903, was described in a Christie's catalog as capturing de Soto's haunting face with heavy features.

"The elegantly dressed sitter appears to scrutinize the viewer with an intense gaze, his inner agitation suggested by the forceful brushstrokes and the cloud of smoke hovering above him," said the catalog for the Impressionist and Modern Art Evening Sale.

Christie's said the painting, estimated to sell for between $40 million and $60 million, was being sold by the foundation for income to be spent on a variety of charitable purposes.

Christie's had not seen the lawsuit by late Monday and would not speculate on the matter, spokesman Toby Usnik said. A spokeswoman for the foundation in London did not immediately return a telephone message seeking comment.

According to the lawsuit, Mendelssohn-Bartholdy was born in 1875 in Berlin to a famous Jewish family that included a composer, Felix Mendelssohn, and a philosopher, Moses Mendelssohn.

By the time the Nazis came to power in January 1933, the Mendelssohn & Co. bank, started by the family in 1795, had become one of the largest private banks in Germany, the lawsuit said.

Mendelssohn-Bartholdy owned one of the great European private art collections, including many paintings by Picasso, van Gogh, Renoir and Monet, and never sold a piece before Adolf Hitler rose to power, the lawsuit said.

Hitler targeted Mendelssohn-Bartholdy for persecution, the lawsuit said, in part because the Nazis blamed private Jewish-owned banks for the fall of Germany's economy and the loss of World War I.

Before his death in 1935, Mendelssohn-Bartholdy was subjected to Nazi intimidation, pressure and such a loss of fortune that he was forced to flee his mansion and begin selling prized paintings into a depressed art market, the lawsuit said.

In October 1934, Mendelssohn-Bartholdy placed on consignment for sale with Berlin art dealer Justin K. Thannhauser the de Soto painting and four other Picasso pieces, including "Head of a Woman" and "Boy Leading a Horse."

In September 1936, Thannhauser sold the painting to M. Knoedler & Co. in New York City. Since the sale, the painting has been in the New York art market for about 50 years. It was sold at auction at Sotheby's New York in 1995 to Webber, the lawsuit said.
 

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