Friday, March 16, 2012

Heiress Huguette Clark: The Degas Debacle

"Danseuse Faisant des Pointes" - Degas
In the case of our dear-departed copper heiress Huguette Clark - the mysteries just keep popping up.

The latest installment involves a $10 million Degas painting, an art museum in Kansas City and the "H" in H&R Block.

Let's dive right in, shall we?

It appears that about 20 years ago a Degas painting, known as "Danseuse Faisant des Pointes" or "Dancer Making Points," went missing from one of Huguette Clark's three apartments at 907 Fifth Avenue. The circumstances around which the painting went missing are, of course, fuzzy at best. Valuing her privacy more than her possessions, Clark had told her attorney and the FBI not to pursue the loss of the painting, thus maintaining her decades old policy of not doing anything that would generate publicity, even if it cost her a pretty penny. Additionally, Clark refused to list the Degas on the international registry of stolen art.

So, how in the name of Mike did the gorgeous "Danseuse" end up on the living room wall of Henry Bloch, a Kansas art collector better known as the "H" in the tax company H&R Block? (Obviously, the spelling of the last name was adjusted) And, how was he allowed to keep it up there between a Seurat and a Toulouse-Lautrec after the FBI discovered that it was Mr. Bloch who had the stolen painting in his possession? For the answer, we must consult our Huguette Clark guru, Bill Dedman, who reports:
After well-mannered wrangling, Clark and Bloch reached a deal. Clark agreed to donate the painting to an art museum in Kansas City, Mo., the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, where Bloch had been a longtime trustee, chairman and benefactor, and where he and his wife had promised to donate all their art when they died. As part of the agreement, the heiress, not America's Tax Man, got the income tax deduction for the gift.

To seal the deal, the ballerina needed to change hands. In October 2008, on a clear but crisp Monday at the Bloch home in Mission Hills, Kansas, a Bloch representative handed the ballerina in the gilded frame to Clark's attorney, who walked out to the car and handed it to a representative of the museum, who then handed it back to the representative of the Blochs, and back on the wall it went. The museum had agreed to lend the painting back to the Blochs, and they will have it as long as they live, renewing the loan every year. Then it will go back to its owner, the Kansas City museum, with the rest of the Bloch collection of Impressionist masterpieces.

The parties signed a confidentiality agreement, keeping the whole business secret even from the staff of the museum. Only three of its 21 trustees were told.

When the museum announced in 2010 the promise by the Blochs to donate 30 Impressionist masterpieces at their death, the Degas dancer was featured in The Kansas City Star newspaper, although the museum at that point had already owned the painting for two years.

Last month, when asked about the ballerina, the museum public relations staff said emphatically that it was not owned by the museum.
Before the transaction was signed, sealed and quite literally, delivered - Huguette Clark made two requests.

Undated photo of copper heiress Huguette Clark
The first was that although Huguette Clark gave the painting without restriction to the Nelson-Atkins museum, in a side letter she asked that her beloved Corcoran Gallery in Washington DC, where a large portion of her father, Senator W.A. Clark's art is on display, should be allowed to borrow the painting up to three times in a 25 year period. If it were shown there, she would receive credit by name. But in Kansas City, the painting is listed as an anonymous gift.

The second request? Huguette Clark asked for, and received, a full-size color photograph of her ballerina.

Couldn't you just weep? She didn't want to fight about it, she just wanted recognition next to her father's paintings and ... oh, just wanted a picture of it.

Now, it appears that additional information has also surfaced - some info that might hinder the case her long-extended family has waged to get what they perceive to be their inheritance away from those whom Clark had named as beneficiaries.

The extended family claims that in 2005, Wallace Bock, Ms. Clark's attorney and Irving H. Kamsler, her accountant used their influence to persuade the then 98 year-old to change her Will - only six weeks after her original Will was signed. The second Will was more detailed: it excluded her extended family, it made plans for an art museum at Bellosguardo, her seaside mansion in Santa Barbara, California, it left about $36 million to her long time companion and nurse, it bequeathed a $40 million Monet to the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and also provided substantial gifts to a godchild, her doctor, her attorney, her accountant and others. The extended family's lawsuit also claims that perhaps Huguette Clark was not of sound mind when the change was executed.

Bill Dedman reports, though:
There was one more hitch, which could play a large role in the court fight now beginning over Huguette Clark's $400 million estate. The museum would not accept the gift from the centenarian, particularly one whom they couldn't meet, unless Clark provided a doctor's statement affirming she was competent to make the gift.

On Oct. 10, 2008, Clark's longtime physician signed a sworn statement. The affidavit by internist Dr. Henry S. Singman began by explaining that he was semi-retired, and had only the one patient.

"I am and have been personal physician to Madame Clark, who resides at 907 Fifth Avenue, New York, New York, since 1991. As such, and because of her advanced age, I visit her on an almost daily basis."

He said he had seen her just the day before. "At that time, and on all previous visits, I found her, although slightly hard of hearing, to be mentally and physically alert, able to read and comprehend written and printed material as well as verbal communications, competent to understand and execute documents and to sign her name thereto without assistance."
That changes things just a bit, doesn't it?

Now, on to some exciting news: our Huguette Clark guru, Bill Dedman is penning a book about the heiress and her family. Can you even believe it? I couldn't either ... until I read about it here. Can't wait.

Finally, here is a video companion to the Degas Debacle.

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