Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The Messy Business of Art Theft and Inheritance

Detail from Edgar Degas' "Dancer Making Points"
Heiress Huguette Clark, daughter of Montana copper king and U.S. Senator William Clark, died nearly a year ago. However, a legal battle rages on, involving relatives and her $400 million estate. Much of the dispute touches on the theft of a Degas painting of a ballerina from her Fifth Avenue apartment in the early 1990’s.

Details surrounding the disappearance of the Degas are vague. Reclusive and guarded, Clark advised her attorney and the FBI not to pursue the theft and did not report it to the Art Loss Register. In 2005, the painting was discovered to be hanging in the home of Henry Bloch, an art collector and co-founder of H&R Block. Although Clark claimed the work was stolen, Bloch and his wife claimed they purchased it in good faith. Clark and Bloch quietly arranged a deal that allowed the Blochs to keep the painting.

Clark signed a deed, donating the Degas to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, where the Blochs are benefactors. The Blochs gave up ownership and Clark benefited from the income tax deduction for the gift, appraised at $10 million. The Nelson-Atkins Museum agreed to loan the painting to the Blochs, allowing them to keep it in their home. Upon their deaths, the painting will be returned to the museum. The museum required a statement from a doctor that Clark was of sound mind when she donated the painting. Clark’s physician signed an affidavit to that effect. The agreement was kept secret, including from most of the museum’s trustees and staff. In October 2008, the trade was completed.

Clark died in May 2011 at the age of 104. She had signed two wills in 2005, a mere six weeks apart. The first left nearly all of her assets to her family. The second cut out her family entirely; included plans for an art museum at her Santa Barbara home; and left substantial gifts to her nurse, the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C, her doctor, her attorney, her accountant, and others. Clark’s family questions the involvement of Clark’s doctor, nurse, attorney, and accountant in her affairs, each of whom benefits substantially from her second will. No doubt this legal fight will not be resolved for quite some time. To follow the continuing drama, read more about the Huguette Clark mystery on MSNBC's website.

Art crime encompasses only one area of art law. Others include intellectual property, international law, and cultural heritage. If you have a legal research need in the area of art law, you may find these resources helpful:

·       Art Law: The Guide for Collectors, Investors, Dealers, and Artists by Ralph E. Lerner & Judith Bresler (3d ed. 2005) (KF4288 .L47 2005)
·       Art Law in a Nutshell by Leonard D. DuBoff and Christy O. King (4th ed. 2006) (KF4288 .Z9 D8 2006)
·       Art, Artifact, Architecture and Museum Law by Jessica Darraby (2010)
Available electronically on Westlaw (ARTARCHLAW)

photo credit: Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

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