Earlier this year, in what the artworld said was the highest amount paid for a painting, cosmetics giant and Jewish philanthropist Ronald S. Lauder bought a 1907 painting by Gustav Klimt for $135 million in a sale made possible by E. Randol Schoenberg, the lawyer who fought to have that and other Klimt paintings seized by the Nazis returned to the heirs of their original owners.
Schoenberg spoke about the litigation on Monday to a group of juniors and seniors at Torah Academy of Bergen County. He represented Maria Altmann of Los Angeles in recovering five Klimt paintings from the Austrian government. Altmann’s aunt, Adele Bloch-Bauer. had been the original owner and the subject of two of the paintings. Lauder bought a gold-flecked portrait called "Adele Bloch-Bauer I." The other four paintings, which were put on auction by Christie’s in Manhattan on Wednesday, included the 191′ portrait "Adele Bloch-Bauer II," a 1903 landscape called "Birch Forest," a 191′ landscape called "Apple Tree I," and a 1916 painting called "Houses in Unterach on the Attersee." Their combined estimated value is $135 million.
Bloch-Bauer died before the Nazi invasion, but the Nazis seized the artwork from her husband Ferdinand before he fled Austria in 1938. In 1998, Altmann learned that the paintings still existed and called Schoenberg, a civil lawyer and the grandson of a close friend.
The Klimt case was about more than just the lawsuit, Schoenberg said; it was the opportunity to tell the story of what happened to Altmann’s aunt and uncle and many others during the Holocaust. He recalled telling Altmann that even if they did not win the case, they would be telling the story of what had happened to her family.
Schoenberg took the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, where he argued for the right to sue a foreign government. The court ruled 6 to 3 in his favor. He could not sue in Austria, he told the TABC students, because of exorbitant filing fees.
His jubilation was short-lived, however, as he realized he had won only the right to begin his case against Austria.
In ‘005 the Austrian government offered to settle the matter through arbitration in Austria. Although Altmann wanted to continue the case in America, Schoenberg convinced her that this was the best option for concluding the case within her lifetime. Even if she did win in America, it would be difficult to enforce the ruling. Three arbiters were chosen one by Schoenberg, one by the Austrian government, and a third by the other two Schoenberg traveled to Austria in September to argue his case. This January, he received an e-mail from the arbiters that they had ruled unanimously in Altmann’s favor. The five Klimt paintings were turned over to Altmann and other heirs, who decided it was best to sell them and then divide the money.
Students asked if he had been concerned about a possible risk to his career if he took the case. He said that he had been employed with a law firm that did not want to be involved. He started his own firm and had to find other cases to support himself while working to reclaim the paintings. But it needed to be done, he said.
"This is one of the few things we can do 60 years after the war," Schoenberg said. It seemed like a natural case for him because his grandmother knew the family and he thought they had a chance of winning.
"He had this prominent job," said Benny Berlin, an 11th-grader from Teaneck, of what Schoenberg had given up to pursue the case. "He believed in this."
Schoenberg has also won a case involving a $6.5 million Picasso painting, as well as a $3 million settlement on a Canaletto piece and a $5 million settlement against the Austrian government regarding a confiscated Viennese building.