How Randy Schoenberg Rescued the Woman in Gold

The lawyer who sued Austria to return a famous painting stolen by the Nazis is now focused on finding his own family treasures.
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You may recognize E. Randol Schoenberg’s name from the 2015 movie Woman in Gold. Starring Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds, it’s the story of how a young Los Angeles lawyer, Schoenberg, helped family friend Maria Altmann recover the Gustav Klimt masterpiece Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I that had been taken from her family following the Nazi annexation of Austria in 1938. Bloch-Bauer, who died in 1925, was Altmann’s aunt. After World War II, that painting and several others belonging to Altmann’s family were sent to an Austrian museum.

Schoenberg helped Altmann pursue authorities in Austria via the U.S. legal system, and he took one case to the U.S. Supreme Court and won. The overall pursuit to get the Klimts back finally ended in 2006 when an Austrian arbitration board agreed to return the art. Altmann and other family members auctioned off five paintings for a total of almost $325 million. Portrait I went for $135 million and is now on permanent display, at Altmann’s request, at philanthropist Ronald S. Lauder’s Neue Galerie in New York City.

Schoenberg says members of his own family were also prominent Austrian Jews who were uprooted and resettled in Los Angeles to escape the Nazis. His late grandfather was the famous composer Arnold Schoenberg.

At 5:30 p.m. on September 27 at Cincinnati Museum Center, Randy Schoenberg will present a lecture sponsored by the new endowed faculty chair in legal ethics and professionalism at Northern Kentucky University’s Salmon P. Chase College of Law. The event is cosponsored by the Nancy and David Wolf Holocaust & Humanity Center at the Museum Center. The Wolfs donated $1 million to create the NKU faculty chair.

At 7 p.m. on September 28, Mariemont Theatre will host a sneak preview of Fioretta, a new documentary about Schoenberg’s passion for genealogy and his search for family roots. The screening is sponsored by the Cindependent Film Festival and Mayerson JCC.

Did Woman in Gold take any liberties with your story?

I don’t look like Ryan Reynolds, unfortunately, so it did take some artistic license there for sure.

How do you argue the legal subtleties of a case like this without getting overwhelmed by the larger moral dimensions of what the Nazis did to Jewish families in Europe?

That’s the question I had to deal with, especially when arguing in the Supreme Court. You could argue, “Why can’t you find a way to help this person?” But the law is supposed to be more dispassionate; you’re trained as a lawyer or a judge not to let your heart take you away from what the law is. So I chose an analytical approach, which is how we won in the Supreme Court. It was a small part of the overall case, but it was the key to proceeding in the United States.

Yet after that, why did you agree to let an Austrian arbitration board make the final decision?

We were already seven years into this process, and Maria was 89. There were still a lot of legal hurdles to get through. I said this could be a way to shortcut all those legalistic details and get to the heart of the argument. We ended up winning the whole issue.

How did you know Maria would sell the paintings so you could get your portion (40 percent) of the settlement as payment?

She didn’t feel inclined to put the paintings in the public domain completely. These were her and her family’s inheritance that had been wrongfully withheld from them. Maria was nearing the end of her life and had four kids, grandchildren and great-grandchildren coming, and wanted to provide for them. The other heirs had similar interests. There was a lot of criticism at the time because people tend to think of these well-known pictures as being held by the public, but they weren’t. These were private property.

You helped bring the Arnold Schoenberg Archives to Vienna before this case emerged about you wanting to take away the Klimt paintings. Any irony in that situation?

It was literally just months before this case started that [the archives] opened in 1998. My grandfather’s archives had been at University of Southern California, and there was a change of management and a breach. The only remedy for a breach in the donation agreement was to transfer it to another place. I was a young lawyer representing my family and had to sue USC to effectuate that transfer. Vienna made the most persuasive offer. They guaranteed funding with performances, exhibits, and scholarly events. That’s now 25 years old and going strong.

Didn’t the thought occur to you that “they don’t deserve this after what they did to my family?”

It depends on how you think of “they.” Our family had been part of the fabric of that country for hundreds of years and contributed greatly to it. So the question is, “Are we Austrian?” And I answer that “Yes,” because that’s the way I grew up. We can’t let the Nazis take away that part of our identity. Don’t let them try to “other” us again. The Nazis tried to eradicate that. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with trying to reestablish that.

What are your hopes for this new documentary film, Fioretta, about your ongoing search for your family’s history?

I hope it will be shown at regular film festivals and Jewish film festivals, and then hopefully it will be streamed and maybe appear in theaters in major cities. The film has Jewish elements, obviously, but there’s more than that. It’s also about my relationship with my son and the interesting people we meet in the process of discovering ancestors going back 500 years. That’s an added bonus if you’re into genealogy, but it’s designed to be a movie of general interest.

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