Thirty years ago when my mother was dying from cancer, she called my siblings and I together to give us some direction about her possessions.
They were few, very few. My parents hadn’t been together for years, they’d never owned a home, there was no family silver or china, no secret savings accounts.
However, my mother had definite plans for what few possessions she counted dear to her heart.
My sister Linda now has my mother’s sorority pin, a small silver spoon. I believe someone got the vacuum cleaner, probably one of my brothers.
To me–the oldest–she passed on a framed original pencil sketch of a young boy holding a flower.
She’d purchased it at a swap meet a few years after my son was born (1976) because she said it reminded her of him.
I remember the print on the wall in my mother’s Southern California apartment when we visited over the years; it now hangs in our home, as it always will, especially because of the sentiments behind it.
Art matters–to families.
In fact, art can save lives.
Adele Bloch-Bauer was the real life Austrian woman depicted in Gustav Klimt’s famous gold-flecked portrait painted between 1903 and 1907. Klimt was a frequent guest in the home of this prominent family and admired Adele’s striking beauty.
But Adele’s family was Jewish. When the Nazis took over Austria in 1938, the wealthy Bloch-Bauers were stripped of their private art collection, including the Adele portrait and four other original Klimt works.
A year earlier Adele’s niece Maria had married Fritz Altmann, a Polish-Jewish opera singer. Maria had grown up with the massive gold portrait on the wall of their family salon, admiring it along with the rest of Austrian society. The painting was like part of the family.
After the Nazis looting, Maria and her husband Fritz were able to escape Vienna, making it to America safely and settling eventually in Los Angeles. Adele Bloch-Bauer died a few years later.
When World War II was over, Austria came under increasing international pressure to return or compensate its former Jewish citizens for their stolen art. Over one hundred thousand families had their private collections confiscated.
Fifty years later the Austrian Parliament passed a Restitution Act which included compensation for stolen art.
When Maria heard of the new law, she asked a close friend, also an Austrian, if her young son the attorney might be able to help her. Aunt Adele had been hanging in the Belvedere Museum in Vienna; it was time to bring her home.
The 32 year old unknown was E. Randol Schoenberg, also a descendant of Viennese society royalty, grandson of well known composer Arnold Schoenberg. Against everyone’s advice to hire a more high-profile lawyer, Maria stuck with Randy.
The two traveled to Austria, a country she said she would never revisit. Although it was painful, she visited the building of her family’s home, reliving her moments as a child and recalling conversations with Aunt Adele.
Maria’s endeavors to bring Aunt Adele back to the family spanned a period of eight years and more than one trip to Vienna. Randy’s young life was changed forever after a visit to the Holocaust Memorial on one of these trips.
The suffering and injustice against the Jewish people pierced his own heart as well; he, too, wanted to see this family’s most precious gifts returned to their rightful owners.
Maria’s suit went all the way to the United States Supreme Court and in the end an Austrian arbitration committee, against all odds, ruled in Maria’s favor. Adele was being returned to the family.
Maria’s one stipulation for the Adele painting–dubbed “Woman in Gold” by the Austrians–was that she be hung in a place where the rest of the world would be able to see her. Her wishes were honored when a private party purchased the painting for $135 million dollars and Adele was hung in the owner’s gallery.
Randy Schoenberg was rewarded for his tireless efforts–he’d quit his job in a large Los Angeles firm to take on Maria’s case, asking only for compensation if they won. The remuneration was so generous he was able to open his own law firm in Los Angeles, specializing in representing families whose art and personal collections had been confiscated during the Nazi occupation.
Randy’s salvation has brought life to many hundreds of clients over the years and he is still practicing law today in Los Angeles, bringing lost family members home where they belong.
Art matters–especially to families.
My husband and I saw the film ‘Woman in Gold’ last weekend (Weinstein pictures, March 2015) starring Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds. I highly recommend it.
A good deal of my information came from this article about Randy Schoenberg.