Randol Schoenberg's perfect (12-tone) legal ear shepherds a $300 million win
Published in 2006 Southern California Rising Stars magazine
on June 16, 2006
Updated on March 29, 2017
On Feb. 25, 2004, 37-year-old Randol Schoenberg prepared to do what every attorney dreams of doing. He was about to argue a case before the U.S. Supreme Court.
In the hallowed chamber, Chief Justice Rehnquist and his eight associates peered down from their curved dais. “You’re so close that when I was sitting down and taking notes, I couldn’t even see the faces,” says Schoenberg. As his opponent spoke, Schoenberg rehearsed the four points of his opening statement one last time in his mind and took a deep, calming breath. “I had almost a gallows humor about the whole thing because no one thought I was going to win,” he says. “Here I am, this kid from L.A., representing an old family friend.”
The family friend was Maria Altmann, an Austrian who fled Nazi Europe before World War II and moved to Los Angeles. If no one thought Schoenberg would win, it was because he was laying siege to an entire foreign government. At issue were six Gustav Klimt paintings that were taken from Altmann’s family by Nazi officials in 1938, eventually becoming the property of Austria. One of the works, a portrait of Altmann’s aunt, Adele Bloch-Bauer, hangs at the Österreichische Galerie Belvedere in Vienna and is one of modern art’s most famous images — Schoenberg remembers when he first saw it as a child on a visit to Austria, from where his family also hails. Together the five pieces are now worth as much as $300 million, and the Supreme Court hearing was just the latest step in Altmann’s long fight to get them back.
Schoenberg had become involved with the case in 1998. His family connections with the Altmanns date back to the heyday of Vienna between the World Wars, when Bloch-Bauer convened salons filled with artists and intellectuals and Schoenberg’s grandfathers, the composers Arnold Schoenberg and Eric Zeisl, helped reshape the musical sensibilities of Europe. Altmann, the Zeisles, and the Schoenbergs stayed in close touch after settling in Southern California in the 1930s and 1940s. Randol, who goes by Randy, is the eldest son of Arnold’s son Ronald and was born in Santa Monica on the day before what would have been Arnold’s 92nd birthday. (The composer died in 1951; Zeisl died in 1959.)
Schoenberg’s first strategy was to pursue the Klimt paintings in Austrian court, but that nation’s law requires paying a deposit on possible legal costs, which meant handing over $1.8 million. Altmann couldn’t afford it, so Schoenberg brought the matter to the United States, entreating — and convincing — federal district and circuit courts of the case’s applicability under U.S. law. Austria appealed every decision, citing among other factors the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, which generally precludes U.S. citizens from filing lawsuits against the governments of other countries.
Yet there were some relevant exceptions to that law, and Schoenberg felt Austria couldn’t hide behind them. “Here’s this museum. They advertise in the United States, and they sell books in the United States, they invite U.S. tourists to visit the museum, accept their credit cards, et cetera,” he says. “So working out of a little office” — he had recently left Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver, & Jacobson and opened a solo practice — “I just drafted a complaint and filed the complaint to see where it would take us.”
The answer was the U.S. Supreme Court. With the stakes so high, a wealthy friend of Altmann offered to pay former judge (and Supreme Court nominee) Robert Bork to take over the case, but Altmann wanted Schoenberg. His passion for the matter was boundless, and for all practical purposes, he was family.
Schoenberg had just started chugging through his argument when the first question rang down. The interrogator was David Souter, a justice known for posing queries so long-winded they feel less like interrogative sentences than monologues with a question mark tacked on the end. “Well, why isn’t it just as easy to say that it does operate retrospectively?” Souter began, referring to the jurisdictional issue at the heart of the case. And then he went on. And on.
Schoenberg, the kid from L.A., lost Souter’s tortuous train of thought somewhere around the third page. And so his first answer to the U.S. Supreme Court was: “I don’t think I understand the question.”
From the gallery came giggles. “It’s my very first minute there, and I have no idea,” he says. “The other justices just smiled, and it was such a natural moment. It was sort of like they were telling me, ‘Oh, don’t worry, he does that all the time’ or ‘Thank God you asked because none of us understood the question either.’”
Instead of becoming fatally flustered by his early stumble, Schoenberg was relieved. “The whole rest of the argument was like a conversation because they realized that I wasn’t going to make things up, you know, or BS them if I didn’t understand a question.”
That sincerity evidently paid off when the justices voted 6-3 in his favor. Yet Austria still didn’t have to return the paintings; the ruling simply meant the battle over their rightful ownership could proceed in U.S. courts. Fearing that a protracted trial — and the inevitable appeal by Austria — would outlast Altmann, who was approaching 90, Schoenberg accepted a risky offer from an Austrian arbitration panel to settle the matter once and for all. And late one night last January, after seven and a half years of wrangling, the panel sided with Altmann. Five of the six paintings were hers (the sixth is still in dispute).
The Altmann case decision wasn’t the only good news Schoenberg received that month. Four days before the Altmann decision was announced, a federal appeals court dismissed a lawsuit Yahoo had filed against a group of French citizens in California who had objected to several Yahoo-run Internet auctions containing Nazi memorabilia, which is illegal to sell under French law. A French court had levied a fine of $15 million against Yahoo for making the auctions available to Internet users in France; Yahoo had countersued, claiming that French law could not be applied to an American company, and Schoenberg, who became involved at a late stage, had argued against the merits of Yahoo’s lawsuit before the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. The judges ruled 6-5 in his clients’ favor.
Schoenberg’s office at Burris & Schoenberg is small, almost cramped. There’s barely room to squeeze into one of the chairs in front of his desk. The piles of documents, combined with the loving way he describes the legal nuances of each case, are clear signs of a dedicated workaholic. On a low bookshelf near his desk is a framed courtroom drawing from the Altmann case showing Schoenberg making his case. “Look at the nose the guy gave me,” he says. “I mean my nose is bad enough, but it’s not that bad.”
Dressed in an Oxford and slacks, Schoenberg is personable, and his voice soft. He says his father, a now-retired Los Angeles judge, didn’t push his son into the legal profession. “I think if you had asked me when I was a little kid, ‘what do you want to do?’ I would have said nuclear physicist or something.”
He enrolled at Princeton and majored in the other family forte: math. (His younger brother Frederic is a professor of statistics at UCLA.) “It was only about, you know, halfway through Princeton that I realized I didn’t think I had what it took to be a math professor and really make a significant contribution in mathematics.” Lucky for him, “I’d always kept open this other side. I was editor of the school newspaper, I was debate squad captain. It’s not unheard of for mathematicians to go into law or vice versa, and you know, there’s a certain amount of logic in formulating arguments that I think is similar.”
Returning to California, he graduated with a J.D. from USC Law School in 1991 and spent his first six years at the L.A. office of Katten Muchin & Zavis handling business and entertainment litigation. There, the greenhorn was assigned to defend Kim Basinger in the highly publicized breach-of-contract case filed against her by the producers of the film Boxing Helena. Basinger had backed out of the project after committing to it verbally, and her opponents sought millions in compensation.
“I was 26 years old,” Schoenberg says. “I literally had to jump in. I think I didn’t start working on it until a week or two before trial started, and was there every day, sitting next to Kim Basinger.” The resulting and well-known $8 million judgment against Basinger was later dismissed on a less-publicized appeal led by Schoenberg.
Schoenberg is tenacious, tireless and “smart as the devil,” says Charles Stern, an attorney at Katten Muchin who worked with Schoenberg and remains a close family friend. “He’s the only lawyer I know who would take on something as seemingly hopeless as the Altmann case.”
For his part, Schoenberg attributes part of his courage to having a judge for a father. “I’m in some sense more comfortable with judges than I should be,” he says. “When I was a younger lawyer, and I looked younger, sometimes it worked to my disadvantage because it’s like, who is this kid, why isn’t he totally petrified of me?”
Schoenberg lives in Brentwood with his wife, Pam, and three children. When the conversation turns from his career to his personal life, he grabs a photo of his three children — Dora, 8; Nathan, 5; Joey, 2 — from the credenza behind him and plants it in front of him proudly yet defensively, as if to say, ‘Ask me about them, not me.’ “I play tennis a little bit. I love to go skiing,” he offers, then wonders aloud if there has been any heavy snowfall in the Sierra Mountains, where the ski destination Mammoth is located. When told the area had in fact just received a fat coat of powder, he savors the news like another verdict in his favor.
Of course, when Schoenberg mentions his family, he might be talking about some 15th-century ancestor. An avid genealogist, he has traced hundreds of relatives going back generations. Especially important to him is the task of tracing the Holocaust victims in his family tree. “My mom’s grandfather was killed and there are probably about 50 other family members that I’ve identified who were killed,” he says.
Yet invariably his favorite topic is law, and soon the conversation returns to the Altmann decision — one of the biggest Nazi art restitutions to date — and its impact, sending well-deserved tremors through other museums holding pieces whose provenance runs through the Third Reich. Schoenberg hopes “families in similar or slightly related circumstances will be emboldened. It sends a signal certainly to the museums and governments that hold on to these things that, you know, they’re going to have to return these things sooner or later.”
Such a righteous, underdog victory might have another lawyer basking in the accolades for months, but Schoenberg is somewhat self-deprecating by comparison. His analytical mind momentarily turns inward. Then the kid who spanked Austria proceeds to break down his skills as if a panel of jaded judges was listening. “My dad had always said that lawyers are sort of good at a lot of things, but not really good at anything,” he says. “That’s probably true, and it probably characterizes me. I’m not great in math, I’m not great in history, or great in English. But I’m pretty good at all of them, which is a good thing to be if you’re going to be a lawyer.”