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Watt Way Online


Story:Murder, or Self Defense?

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     In September 1998, an embarrassed Austrian minister Gehrer proposed a restitution law that would return art that Jews had donated to museums in exchange for export permits.

     Maria, who was now living in Los Angeles, called some local Austrian friends to ask for help in looking up the law online. Her friends were out of town. Instead, she reached their son, Randol Schoenberg.

     Schoenberg, a judge’s son, was a young lawyer, working in the Los Angeles office of the major, international law firm, Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson. Schoenberg spoke German, having studied it as an undergraduate at Princeton and during a semester abroad in Berlin. He had learned the language to communicate with his grandparents, who were by now, Austrian legends. Schoenberg’s paternal grandfather, Arnold Schoenberg, composed music in an atonal style that was so surprising, it provoked riots during performances. An Austrian postage stamp commemorated him.

     Schoenberg’s maternal grandfather, Eric Zeisl, was also a composer. Before the war, Zeisl befriended an aspiring opera singer, who happened to be Fritz Altmann, Maria’s husband. Schoenberg, in his office, opens a catalogue from a recent Zeisl exhibit in Austria and points to a photograph of his grandfather and Fritz standing side-by-side. “Just to show you, they were close friends,” he says. So, when Maria called the Schoenbergs, she was calling old friends from the Old World.  When she called, and Schoenberg answered, he happened to have just read about the Austrian law, and so he was in a prime position to explain it.

Suing the Austrian government

     Three months after their conversation, the Austrian parliament unanimously approved the restitution act and announced that a government commission would be set up to review restitution claims. Schoenberg took Maria’s case to his law firm and asked for permission to pursue it. The firm granted its consent, for now.

     Schoenberg hired an Austrian lawyer to write a couple of opinions saying that Adele’s will was a request, not a bequest, and that the paintings were donated only to receive export permits for other artwork. Schoenberg sent the opinions to Rudolf Wran, the Austrian ministry official in charge of the restitution commission. Schoenberg also asked Wran for a chance to respond to any arguments made against restitution.

     On June 28, 1999, the commission announced its decision: Austria would return to the Bloch-Bauer heirs some porcelain and Klimt drawings but not the Klimt paintings.

     Schoenberg fired off an angry letter, which appeared in The Wall Street Journal. “The advisory board met in secret and would not permit the heirs to participate or respond to the opponents of restitution,” he wrote. “The chairman of the advisory board and his compatriot in the attorney general’s office refused to share with the other members two legal opinions from an Austrian lawyer supporting the heirs’ claims to the Klimt paintings.”

     Schoenberg concluded by calling for arbitration: “The fact that we have documents to evidence all these events is, after 50 years, amazing. The fact that the advisory board simply ignored them is even more incredible. Based on its improper handling of the matter, we do not believe the advisory board can be trusted to give an impartial recommendation… Therefore, we have proposed that a panel of neutral arbitrators be selected to … come to a final conclusion that everyone can live with.”

     Gottfried Toman, the director of the Austrian Office of State Attorneys, who managed Austria’s side of the case, disputes Schoenberg’s version of events. “This is definitely nonsense,” he says, speaking on the phone from Austria. “The head of the advisory board shared, of course, all the documents with his colleagues.” Schoenberg “was bombing the advisory board nearly every week and every day with additional information, letters, documents, and so on and so on. He took every opportunity to present his arguments,” Toman said.

     For Toman, the case revolves around a legal dispute about a will. “Randy’s interest was to make a huge Holocaust case of this,” he says, “which it is only on the sidelines, but not in the center.”


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