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Story:Murder, or Self Defense?

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     Adele was a wealthy patroness of the arts who wanted to leave the Klimt paintings in Austria as a sort of personal legacy, Toman says. The Nazis’ taking over Austria after her death should not affect the fulfillment of her wish, he said. “Doesn’t it happen quite often that after people pass away, the world is a quite different one?” he asks.

     “My key argument was always first, that the paintings belong to Austria based on the last will,” Toman says, “and second, based on the acknowledgment of the lawyer of the Bloch-Bauer family after World War II.”

     Facing such opposition, Schoenberg filed a lawsuit against Austria in a Vienna court in September 1999. Almost immediately, the court stopped him in his tracks. It demanded a deposit of $1.8 million at first, and then, when Schoenberg protested, about $500,000. The amount was too much for Maria, who, then in her eighties, was selling women’s clothing out of her home.

     Now, Schoenberg had only one option left.

     The big law firm for which Schoenberg worked decided that it had to abandon the case. “They wrote me a letter,” Maria recalls, “and said that as much as they like me, as much as they would be interested in the case, they are not willing to work years without knowing that there’d be any result, because, they said – and I have it in writing – the U.S. marshal is not going to go to Vienna and pick up the paintings.”


Austria appealed to the 9th circuit but lost again. Finally, in 2004, the case reached the U.S. Supreme Court. Few thought Schoenberg had any chance of winning.

     On June 1, 2000, Schoenberg, an intense man of slight frame and considerable energy, rented a small room in his current office building. From now on, he would carry the weight of the case on his own.

     Schoenberg figured that his only option was to pursue the case in the United States. It was a long shot, but there was a chance that U.S. courts would allow him to sue Austria based on the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, which allows lawsuits to be filed against foreign countries when property has been taken against international law. The challenge was that the act was passed in 1976, years after the Nazis had stolen the Klimt paintings and the Austrian museum had refused to return them. Schoenberg would have to show, not only that the law applied to his case, but that it applied retroactively.

     In August 2000, Schoenberg filed a claim against Austria in a federal district court in Los Angeles. Austria tried to get the case dismissed, but a federal district court in Los Angeles ruled that the case could continue. “If that hadn’t happened,” Schoenberg says, “it would’ve been all over.”

     Austria appealed to the 9th circuit but lost again. Finally, in 2004, the case reached the U.S. Supreme Court. Few thought Schoenberg had any chance of winning. The U.S. government, fearful that the case could open a can of worms – a plethora of suits to settle long-ago disputes – filed a brief against him.

     On February 25, 2004, Schoenberg walked into nation’s high court. “I had sort of this gallows humor,” he says, “like this is crazy. Here I am, representing my grandmother’s friend in the Supreme Court of the United States, over whether I can sue a foreign country over paintings that were stolen 70 years ago, that are still in Vienna.” He started to speak, but only got in about two sentences before Justice David Souter asked a long, involved question. Schoenberg’s mind went blank. “Well, I’m – I’m not sure that I understand the question,” he stammered. Some in the courtroom laughed, as if to say, “Well, neither did we.” From that point on, the argument turned into a half-hour conversation. “It went like a dream,” Schoenberg says.

     Four months later, a reporter called Schoenberg to let him know that the court had made its decision. Schoenberg asked for the bad news, but he had won, 6-3. “From then, the die was cast,” he says.

     Austria proposed going to arbitration, which is what Schoenberg had wanted all along. Maria had some reservations, as the arbitration would take place in Austria, but Schoenberg had a good feeling about it. He told Maria that accepting the offer was the only way she was going to get closure on this case in her lifetime.

     In September 2005, Schoenberg flew to Austria to argue his case, which he did, mostly in German, in one grueling day.

     Then, it was back to waiting, until one Sunday evening, four months later. Schoenberg had been playing poker with friends and losing terribly when he returned home, checked his Blackberry and found a new message that told him all he needed to know: He had won.

 

 

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