Schoenberg ’91 Landmark Case In ‘Woman in Gold’

USC Gould School of Law • April 3, 2015
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Story of reclaimed art stolen during the Holocaust


-By Jared Servantez


USC Gould Alumnus E. Randol Schoenberg '91 made a name for himself in the legal world litigating a landmark case to reclaim works of art stolen during the Holocaust, and now his story is making its way to the silver screen.


Ryan Reynolds portrays Schoenberg in “Woman in Gold,” which opened in theaters nationwide on April 3. The film depicts Schoenberg's restitution case brought against the Austrian government, representing family friend Maria Altmann. He worked for years to reclaim paintings by renowned Viennese artist Gustav Klimt. The paintings were confiscated from Altmann's family by the Nazi regime in 1938, when Germany took control of Austria.


 Schoenberg with a slide of Klimt's
 Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I

Schoenberg, who is a lecturer at USC Gould, brought the case to the United States Supreme Court in 2004. He appeared before the court to argue that Altmann, portrayed by Helen Mirren in the film, had the right to sue the Austrian government in U.S. courts to recover her family's artwork. The court ruled in their favor, allowing Schoenberg and Altmann to continue fighting the case on U.S. soil, eventually settling in arbitration with the Austrian government in 2006. 


The victory triggered a shockwave felt throughout the legal world. As Schoenberg told an audience gathered for a Conversation with the Dean event in 2013: “Everybody thought we were going to lose.”


For Schoenberg, whose grandmother grew up in pre-war Vienna, the case was as much a personal mission as it was a professional challenge. 


“This is my family's history as well,” Schoenberg said. “This was an incredible generation of people – so educated, so cultured. The world lost so much during the Holocaust. It's meant a lot to me to tell this story to a new generation.”


In a recent interview with the Associated Press, Reynolds said he was inspired by the story of Schoenberg and Altmann's legal battle. 


“The story is just so powerful and so moving and there's a history lesson in there and there's a lot of information in there that I don't think a lot of people know, not just about art restitution but about the Holocaust and about how it affected generations past and how it affects generations now as well," Reynolds said. "A lot of what's happening in this movie is very relevant."


The film is directed by Simon Curtis and also stars Katie Holmes, Elizabeth McGovern and Charles Dance.

 Maria Altmann, who died in 2011, with the recovered painting
 Photo by Volker Corell

Schoenberg’s work was recognized with the California Lawyer “Attorney of the Year” award in 2007, the 2006 Jurisprudence Award from the Anti-Defamation League and the Justice Louis D. Brandeis Award from the American Jewish Congress.

Schoenberg continues to serve as president of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, a post he has held since 2005. He remains Of Counsel at Burris, Schoenberg & Walden, LLP and has been involved in several other suits involving stolen artworks.

Reflecting on the unlikely path his career has taken, Schoenberg has encouraged USC Gould students to work hard and pursue opportunities when they arise.

“The education I got here was excellent,” Schoenberg said at a USC Gould discussion on his work. “Take the best job you can, the best firm you can ... get that job, and learn to be the best lawyer you can be. You don’t know where life is going to take you.”

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