When art turns ugly: An estate planning tale

May 1, 2024

This New York story is a cautionary tale about a family torn apart by an unexpected will.

6 Tulipa Xgesneriana, Paper, Wire & Paint, in Richard Stratton, Drifts Around Like Smoke Urn, from MINORES 2022 Anna Miles Gallery. Artist: Karin Montgomery. Photograph: Samuel Hartnett

At the heart of the tale is the late mother, Dolores Ormandy Neumann, a vibrant musician (the harp), and art collector who championed the stunning artwork of Jean-Michel Basquiat. In purchasing paintings from the then struggling artist, she later realised massive capital gain. A Basquiat she purchased in 1983 for a princely sum of US$15,000 was valued more recently at US$40 million. Dolores and her estranged husband Hubert assembled a collection of more than 2,000 artworks conservatively valued at more than US$1 billion.

The bulk of the Neumann Family Collection was held in a private trust designed to keep the artworks together including pieces by Picasso and Miro. But Dolores had hung onto several key artworks including the Basquiat. Upon her death her three daughters stood to share the proceeds of the estate. There was Kristina, Belinda and Melissa.

But the reading of the will did not go as expected. Rather than split the estate evenly, Dolores gifted the oldest sister Kristina just 10% of the estate’s value but to be held in a trust overseen by Belinda. As the will said: “Kristina has had difficulties managing her financial affairs. I’ve given her lump sums in the past and besides she has no children.”

Melissa suffered the next bombshell. Despite being the sister who provided the care and running around for Dolores in recent years, Melissa stood to inherit a meagre slice of the estate, capped at US$1 million.

Belinda the other sister inherited everything else including the trophy Basquiat painting.

Oh, and in the will, Dolores had added a nasty little caveat. If Melissa contested the will, she would get nothing.

Happy families? But that’s when things got complicated and highly litigious.

Enter 92-year-old Hubert Neumann, the estranged husband, a taciturn man who had some say-so when it came to contesting the will.  He was not actually divorced from Dolores, and he had survived his wife. Questions of inheritance were therefore premature. And besides, he had taken Dolores on his art-collecting missions. Hubert was resolute: all the art was to be inherited in equal measure by the three daughters. That was always the intent.

Litigation ensued. In fact, the family took out at least 18 civil lawsuits with claims and counterclaims. Some of these centred on Belinda’s role in getting the will updated just before Dolores died. Other suits focused on the fractious nature of the family’s living arrangements: a large town house subdivided between the father and each of the quarrelling sisters. At one stage security men were hired to ensure the families did not interact: a stipulation required by the Court.

Even so, Hubert was charged with assault after a shoving incident allegedly directed at Belinda’s husband, a real estate financing professional.

All this occurred over 8 agonising years, with each party bleeding hefty legal fees and the family’s woes being dragged through the spirited headlines of the New York Post.

Here was the irony. In order to cover her costs Belinda sold the aptly titled Basquiat masterpiece Flesh and Spirit.

Given the competing voices between the three daughters, their father and from Dolores, harping if you like, beyond the grave, the title could not have been more appropriate.

What’s the lesson here? Unless there is a robust rationale, distribute your estate equally amongst your children. See your lawyer sooner rather than later to review your estate planning needs including updating your will.

The beautiful botanicals you see have been crafted from paper by artist, Karin Montgomery, a long-time client of Stuart Carlyon. A commission by Te Papa Museum in Wellington, titled “A Garden for an Immigrant” is due to launch later this year. It consists of 8 specimens, including one native plant. The introduced specimens were planted by early European immigrants to NZ when making their first, very humble settler gardens. Karin’s inspiration is from her great-great-grandfather, Nicola Azzariti, who arrived in Port Chalmers, from Puglia, in the 1870s. Italian, Catholic, illiterate, no English and poor. This is Karin’s gift to him.