How E. Randol Schoenberg fought for The Woman in Gold

The LA-based lawyer speaks to the ‘Post’ about his successful recovery of a world famous painting looted by the Nazis from its Jewish owners.

‘Woman in Gold’ portait by Gustav Klimt. (photo credit: Courtesy)
‘Woman in Gold’ portait by Gustav Klimt.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
This evening the Israel Museum will host a lecture-panel slot called The Woman in Gold: Looted Art During the Holocaust. Naturally, the famous 1907 painting by Gustav Klimt, Adele Bloch-Bauer I – aka The Woman in Gold – will be front and center at the event, the speaker roster of which includes Israel Museum director James Snyder, the museum’s European Art curator Shlomit Steinberg, Prof. Barak Medina from the Faculty of Law of the Hebrew University, and E. Randol Schoenberg, the lawyer who successfully sued the Austrian government for the return of the iconic stolen Klimt painting to its rightful owner, Maria Altmann.
Schoenberg’s character in the highly successful Hollywood portrayal of the story, which stars Helen Mirren, is played by Ryan Reynolds. The movie is based on the book The Lady in Gold, by Anne-Marie O’Connor, who has been living in Jerusalem for the last few years with her journalist husband William Booth, the Jerusalem bureau chief of The Washington Post.
Schoenberg became involved in the real-life courtroom by virtue of his indirect relationship with the heiress.
“My grandmother’s best friend was Maria Altmann [the niece of Klimt’s subject, who died in 2011] and she contacted me,” he explains. “Contrary to what is portrayed in the film, which makes out that I was unaware of my background, I was very aware of my background – my genealogy and, obviously, my Jewish background.”
That is something of an understatement. When he’s not making a living from his legal work, or spending time with his wife and three offspring, Schoenberg avidly engages in checking out family trees. In fact, the main premise for his current foray to this part of the world was to attend the five-day IAJGS International Conference on Jewish Genealogy at the Ramada Hotel in Jerusalem.
The lawyer says his passion for family histories impacted on his approach to the tussle over the Klimt works.
“It certainly influenced the way I handled things in the case. There are always two ways of arguing cases like this. One is to pull at the heartstrings. You know, [to say] the family is devastated and please be nice to us. But then there are the legal aspects. Knowing that we already had the underlying sympathetic story, I always chose to focus on the legal aspects, because they were good for us also,” he said with a laugh. “The difficulty was to get the Austrians, at every level, to follow their own laws.”
In general, when Schoenberg uses the terms “Austrians” he does not differentiate between Jews and non-Jews, except, of course, in a Nazi-related context. Until not so many years ago, Austrians claimed they were the first victims of the Nazis, rather than being colluders and highly active contributors to anti-Semitism and the Holocaust. That stance has now been officially withdrawn, although Schoenberg himself claims that Austrians did suffer.
“The first victims were Jewish Austrians, so the Austrians who were victims were the Jewish Austrians.”
The lawyer has the requisite genes to posit that line. His grandfather was the celebrated 20th century expressionist composer and painter Arnold Schoenberg, and his family lived in Austria for many generations.
“What I do like, sometimes, is when people exclude Jewish Austrians from what they mean when they say ‘Austrian’,” continues Schoenberg. “I like to point out that the family of Austrian Chancellor [Wolfgang] Schussel [who was head of state during the time of the trial] came from Poland and my family lived in Vienna for 300 years. He can call himself Austrian all he wants, but my family got there first. I always wanted to reclaim Austria for us, for our families who were thrown out and, to this day, are excluded from the definition of ‘Austrians’.”
Schoenberg, of course, is a professional advocate but, considering the personal baggage inherent in the court case, surely there was an emotional aspect to the long, drawn-out trial, too.
“It was very emotional for me,” he admits. “Maria was my grandmother’s best friend, and that was the only grandparent I had. My grandmother’s name was Gertrude Zeisl [wife of Austrian Jewish composer Erich Zeisl who fled Austrian straight after the Anschluss in 1938]. Working with Maria was like working with a part of my family. She told me stories about my grandparents. That was always fun and interesting, but also made working with Maria very emotional.”
For Schoenberg The Woman in Gold case was sort of a professional rite of passage.
“I grew with it,” he says. “I was not quite 32 [when it began], and I was 40 when it was finished. When Maria called me my wife and I had been married for two years and we’d just had our first child. Then Maria called me and I went on this long journey for the next eight years. It was a perfect case for me and was the perfect person for the case.”
Israel Museum director Snyder says, in fact, that this evening’s event has been a long time coming.
“For me, the subject was a little bit about coming here and realizing that the Israel Museum was connected to a story which, when I got here, was really only starting to percolate. The whole story of World War II restitution, although it has been around for a long time, really only started to heat up once Germany reunified and the Soviet Union collapsed, and all these records started appearing, information started appearing, and people realized that the [Holocaust] survivors themselves were going and going, and would soon all be gone. That caused a surge of interest in the subject.”
Early on in Snyder’s tenure, the museum became involved in the business of finding the original owners of works of art that were suspected of having been previously looted and, even though the museum generally came by works following several stages of ownership along the works’ life line, Snyder says that he and the institution he heads cooperated fully with the authorities.
“We are very active in the field, and we feel that the Israel Museum should take a proactive role in trying to demonstrate appropriate ways of dealing with something that is really complicated.”
Hopefully, the members of this evening’s audience at the Israel Museum will come away from the lecture-discussion feeling a little enlightened about the topic, and about how the sumptuously attractive Klimt masterpiece was reclaimed.
For more info on The Woman in Gold lecture visit