Reclaiming Third Reich plunder is a passionate quest for L.A. lawyer

LOS ANGELES — In one of the most complex legal battles in the annals of Holocaust restitution, centering on the restoration of art looted by the Nazis to its rightful owners, E. Randol Schoenberg is stationed on the frontlines.

The stakes are enormous. In the biggest collective art theft of all time, Hitler's minions seized up to 600,000 important works between 1933 and 1945, according to a recent report in The New York Times.

If one includes all art objects, books, Judaica, silver pieces and other valuables, the Nazis stole 10.7 million items in all of Europe, worth more than $37 billion today, the same article estimates.

A current case, which has drawn wide attention, pits Schoenberg against the government of Austria. Schoenberg represents Maria V. Altman, an 87-year-old Los Angeles resident, who is seeking to recover six paintings by the early 20th century Viennese painter Gustav Klimt. The paintings, valued at $150 million, include a stunning portrait of her aunt, Adele Bloch-Bauer.

The Austrian government, which holds the paintings, is contesting the claim. Last year, Schoenberg scored a major victory when an appeals court in San Francisco ruled that a foreign government could be held to answer in the United States for a Holocaust-based claim.

But the two-and-a-half-year-old case is far from over. The Austrian government appealed the decision and, to Schoenberg's dismay, the U.S. Department of Justice is backing the Austrians on the grounds that a sovereign foreign state is immune to lawsuits in American courts. The case might end up in the Supreme Court.

Last December, Schoenberg opened up another front by seeking to recover a $10 million Picasso oil painting for the Berkeley-based grandson of a Berlin woman who owned it before World War II. The 1922 painting, Femme en Blanc ("Woman in White"), was "confiscated" by the Nazis in 1940.Besides these headline cases, Schoenberg has advised hundreds of Jewish families from Austria on their restitution rights, usually as a free service. He earns his bread and butter through more mundane business litigation.

"It is enormously time-consuming to pursue the art recovery cases I received my first call from Maria Altman in the Klimt case in 1998 and enormously expensive, running into millions," said Schoenberg in his high-rise office on Wilshire Blvd.

Tom Tugend

JTA Los Angeles correspondent