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The Klimts and the Supreme Court

March 18, 2012 | 12:51 pm

It was about art, but it wasn’t an art case that E. Randol Schoenberg presented to the Supreme Court in 2004. It was about the legal matter of jurisdiction.

Schoenberg was representing an elderly Los Angeles woman, Maria Altmann, the Vienna-born heiress of a Jewish fortune that had vanished into the hands of the Third Reich. The trove included two striking portraits of Altmann’s aunt by Austrian painter Gustav Klimt. My "Patt Morrison Asks" column visits with Schoenberg about the high-stakes case.

Schoenberg’s argument that the law regarding international jurisdiction and seized property as applied to those and other Klimt paintings should be restored to the family won the day in the 9th Circuit federal court. "The issues in the lawsuit -- jurisdiction, retroactivity, immunity -- had almost nothing to do with the [historical] facts." But then the case was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. 

"I went in with gallows humor and low expectations." To Schoenberg's surprise, the Supreme Court sided with him 6-3. "That was huge." His reasoning: not to make the case "a sob story about an old woman seeking vengeance or whatever, but a legal argument that was very technical and not pulling at the heartstrings."  And he directed it at Justice Antonin Scalia.

"My argument was pitched directly towards Justice Scalia because he had written a concurring opinion in a previous case which I thought was really good for us. I thought if I get Scalia I’ll get some others. If I don’t get [Justice Ruth Bader] Ginsburg and [Justice John Paul] Stevens I’m lost. My problem was the middle, and I thought if I can get Scalia, then the ones in the middle might come along, and that’s what happened. [I presented] it in a dry way, which I thought would appeal to him."

And, he bought Scalia’s book in the Supreme Court gift shop.


Marcel Duchamp's turning point

Photos: Gustav Klimt's five paintings

When art and politics collided in L.A.

-- Patt Morrison

Photo: E. Randol Schoenberg. Credit: Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times.

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