Jewish Journal


September 15, 2009

Nazi-looted art and property law



Klimt's "Adele Bloch-Bauer I"

Randol Schoenberg was a bit surprised when I told him Saturday what they were now teaching in first-year property courses at UCLA School of Law. Among a handful of cases looking at Nazi-looted properties is one that took Schoenberg from Austria to the U.S. Supreme Court and back—and after seven years returning to his client five famous Gustav Klimt paintings that were valued at about $300 million.

My class discussed this case Monday, and in light of that I thought it was worth excerpting a portion of the Daily News article I wrote when Schoenberg got an Austrian arbitration panel to unanimously rule in 2006 that the Austrian government must return the Klimt paintings stolen from Maria Altmann’s family.

The image displayed was the most famous of the paintings, named after the subject, who happened to be Altmann’s aunt, “Adele Bloch-Bauer I.” It sold for $135 million shortly after being returned to Altmann, who lives in Los Angeles.

Here’s a snippet from my story:

Thirty years ago, Altmann moved into a simple one-story house on a quiet street with a coastal breeze. Her Cheviot Hills backyard is quintessential Los Angeles: a pool and a view of the Pacific. The interior is decorated with antique statues and paintings. But there is no place for a real Klimt; besides, Altmann already has that “Adele I” lithograph - not to mention the portrait’s place on wrapping paper and a coffee mug, which Altmann finds “tasteless.”

Klimt was a contemporary of Sigmund Freud and Arnold Schoenberg, the famous composer and grandfather of E. Randol Schoenberg. Altmann was a close friend of the younger Schoenberg’s maternal grandmother and has always seen him as family.

“Randy” was 32 when she called him with hopes his mother could provide legal advice in recovering the Klimt paintings. It was 1998 and Austria was considering - and eventually passed - a law that required the National Gallery to return any donations made in exchange for having other property seized by the Nazis returned.

“My night job was a lot more fun,” he said of the unbilled time he spent on the Klimt case. “It was the kind of thing you could talk about at cocktail parties and everybody would be interested.”

The original is no longer online at dailynews.com, but you’re interested, you can read the entire story at my online portfolio.

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