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A case of extraordinary impact

      “The case is earth-shattering,” exults Ori Soltes, chairman of the Holocaust Art Restitution Project in Washington. Not only “because of the fame of Klimt and the value of the works,” but also because “it completely revamps Austria's position in this whole issue, pushing them toward the head of the class of trying to right wrongs.”

      Jane Kallir, co-director of the Galerie St. Etienne in New York, the oldest gallery in the United States specializing in Austrian and German Expressionism, could hardly believe it. “It is a quirk of history that a painting like this should be returned to the international marketplace,” she says. “No modern icon of comparable fame or value is going to come back to market.”

      As for Schoenberg, “I’m incredibly proud of him,” Maria says. “He’s a terrifically bright person and works like a slave.”

      Schoenberg is also proud of himself. “I doubt that I’ll do anything this momentous again,” he says.

      After the arbitration panel announced its decision, Austria speculated that it might buy the paintings but then decided that it could not afford their $300 million price tag.

      Austrian newspapers reported that Schoenberg’s fee would amount to 40 percent of the art works’ value. But when an Austrian reporter asks him about it, Schoenberg does not want to talk about money. The 40-percent-figure is “not necessarily correct,” he tells a reporter, on the phone from Austria. “It’s a little bit anti-Semitic, I think. It wouldn’t be news in the United States that people make money for succeeding, but somehow, when people talk about our success, what Maria will be getting, or what I’ll be getting, somehow the focus is on that.”


If the Austrians are sad to say goodbye to Adele’s portrait, long hailed as a national treasure, so be it, Schoenberg says. “No one was crying when my grandparents were fleeing or when Maria Altmann was fleeing."

      If the Austrians are sad to say goodbye to Adele’s portrait, long hailed as a national treasure, so be it, Schoenberg says. “No one was crying when my grandparents were fleeing or when Maria Altmann was fleeing,” he says. “There should be some pain attached to the exile.” In a way, the gold portrait of Adele is the last exile, he says, “a fitting conclusion to the migration of the Austrian Jewish community.”

      Now, the Klimt paintings, remnants of another world, hang on the walls of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, in a special exhibition running through June 2006. Michael Govan, the museum’s new director, has resolved to “tell the story surrounding the family, its relationship to the artist, and their ownership of the paintings.”

      For Schoenberg, telling the story is paramount.

      “Obviously, there’s the fame and fortune that comes with winning, and that feels good,” Schoenberg says. “But I always felt it was necessary to tell the story, and not allow the lie to persist,” he says.

      In his office, where a sketch of him arguing before the Supreme Court hangs behind his desk, and framed newspaper articles about the case line the wall to his right, Schoenberg recalls a piece he once read that categorized the kinds of third-generation Holocaust survivors. One type, in particular, resonated with him.

      “I was like, oh my God, that’s me,” he says. “It is the one who intuits, without even being told, (that) they have to be the repository of all the history and tell the story.” They call him “the torch bearer.”

 

 

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