“You have to follow your own instincts. You have to do what you think is right.”

USC Gould School of Law alumnus, E. Randol Schoenberg ’91 shares his experience representing, Maria Altmann in the quest to retrieve Gustav Klimt paintings owned by her family which was looted by Nazis during World War II.

Transcript is from a 2016 interview with USC alumnus and faculty member, E. Randol Schoenberg. Watch the full interview on YouTube.

Maria Altmann and Randy Schoenberg
Maria Altmann and Randy Schoenberg (Photo courtesy of Randy Schoenberg)

I went to law school right out of college, mainly as a default. I couldn’t really do anything else. I had majored in math, but I really wasn’t good enough to go on to graduate school, and my father was a judge, and I thought okay, law, might be a good good thing to try out, so that’s why I came to USC.

It was fun for me also because at that time my grandfather’s archives were here at USC, the Arnold Schoenberg Institute was here. My grandfather Arnold Schoenberg fled the Nazis in 1933, and he spent one winter in Boston and froze to death and decided to come out to California. So in 1934, he came out here, and his first job was teaching at USC.

I was working in a firm downtown doing securities litigation, and I got a call from my grandmother’s closest friend, Maria Altmann. And I knew Maria she had been a very good family friend you know she knew my mom since my mom was born, and she was always around, and so she called me up and said, “Could you help me? I got a call from Austria, and there’s some new law and my family had these paintings, and I think there’s something going on.”

And she told me this story about how the Nazis had taken these paintings from her uncle, and that the family had never recovered them. So immediately I was hooked, and we went together on a long 8-year journey.

When I was in the Supreme Court with Maria actually in 2004, that that day she was on the cover of the USA Today, and I said to Maria I said, “You know win or lose (everybody thought we were going to lose), but I said win or lose no matter what your story is being told. Right? It’s on the cover of the newspaper. There’s going to be a Supreme Court decision that lasts forever. Everybody’s going to know what happened to you.” And for me and for Maria, that was our motivation – telling the story.

Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds in Woman In Gold.
Altmann, played by Helen Mirren and Schoenberg, played by Ryan Reynolds in Woman In Gold. (Photo: The Weinstein Company)

And so now to have it as a major motion picture with Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds and Katie Holmes and have millions of people hear her story it really is it’s the icing on the cake. It’s a great fulfillment of a dream that Maria had which was to let people know about what happened to her family; what happened to families like mine also victims of the Nazis and these amazing paintings.

Everything worked out, miraculously. But I all I can say is you have to follow your own instincts. You have to do what you think is right, and you have to be prepared to be able to do that. So I was very fortunate to have a great background that I got at USC Law School and also as an associate of the firms I had worked at so that when Maria Altmann came to me, and I had this great opportunity, I was ready to take it and I took it.

After the case ended, there were actually a group of students here at USC Law School who went to the deans and said, “Why don’t you ask Randy Schoenberg to come and teach an art law course?” So I was asked to come back to my alma mater and teach and you know there’s no greater honor than that. It’s been a lot of work, for me, to come back and teach but it’s been very rewarding.