I found out about the exhibition while reading an issue of Chicago magazine back in 2007.  There was an advertisement promoting Manet to Matisse: Impressionist Masters from the Marion and Henry Bloch Collection, an upcoming exhibition at Kansas City's Nelson-Atkins Museum.

Henry Bloch is the "H" of the H&R Block tax services.  To celebrate the opening of the Bloch Building at the museum. the Blochs agreed to an exhibition of 30 masterpiece Impressionist paintings from their private collection.  Henry Bloch has been a longtime trustee, chairman and benefactor of the museum.

One of the paintings included in the exhibition was a Degas pastel titled Dancer Making Points or in French, Danseuse Faisant des Pointes.  You can see a portion of the painting above because it was used in the promotion of the Bloch exhibition.  The Blochs had purchased the painting from a New York City art dealer in 1993 (THE "BOUGHT").

Imagine Henry Bloch's surprise when in 2005 he was contacted by the FBI regarding an art investigation of the Degas painting.  Mr. Bloch stated, "I believe I may have been first contacted in late 2005 by the FBI, who indicated that they were conducting an art investigation and wanted to confirm their information that we had purchased the Degas."  The FBI, Bloch said, "did not give any indication that it had been stolen and gave us assurances there was nothing to worry about. I nevertheless shared the inquiry with my attorney at the time who discussed it with the Director of the Nelson-Atkins. I do not believe I was contacted again by them until late 2007."

So what was this art investigation?

The painting, seen above, was originally owned by reclusive copper-heiress Huguette Clark.  Ms. Clark lived in New York City, but in 1991, at age 84, she moved out of her apartment and spend the remainder of her life in hospitals.  In 1992, the painting was discovered missing from her apartment (THE "STOLEN").

Huguette Clark's apartment (photo courtesy: www.dailymail.uk.co)

Valuing her privacy more than the painting, Ms. Clark chose not to file a police report nor did she register the painting on the international registry of stolen art.  Thus, the Bloch's attorney argued because Ms. Clark had made no attempt to try to find the missing painting that the Blochs now owned the painting in a kind of "finder's keepers, loser's weepers" claim.

Eventually through an agreement made between Ms. Clark and Mr. Bloch, Ms. Clark decided to donate the painting to the Nelson-Atkins Museum where the Blochs have agreed to donate their collection after their deaths.  The Blochs got to keep their painting and lucky Ms. Clark got a very large tax write-off.  But here's where it gets interesting...

In 2008 outside of the Bloch's home in Mission Hills, Kansas, one of the strangest (and shortest) art exchanges took place.  A representative of the Blochs walked outside and physically handed the painting to a representative of Ms. Clark (THE "RETURN").  

Ms. Clark's representative in turn walked over to a parked car in which a representative of the Nelson-Atkins Museum sat and gave him the painting (THE "DONATE") .

The museum representative turned around and gave the painting back to the Bloch's representative where it was rehung in the Bloch's living room (THE 2ND "RETURN").

The museum thus agreed to "lend" the painting to the Blochs; every year until their deaths, the loan will be renewed.  After the Bloch's death, all 30 paintings from the exhibition, including the Degas, will be donated permanently to the museum (THE 2ND "DONATE") even though technically the museum already owns the Degas.

All parties involved signed a confidentiality agreement so until recently only 3 of the 21 museum trustees were aware of the agreement.

All of this recently became public after the death of Ms. Clark in 2011 at age 104.  Many are questioning whether Ms. Clark was mentally capable of signing an agreement in 2008 at the age 102, basically giving away a $10 million masterpiece.  At the time of the painting donation her personal physician signed an affidavit confirming he felt his patient was "mentally and physically alert".  In addition, the trustees of the Nelson-Atkins Museum would not accept such a large donation from someone of Ms. Clark's age without verification of her mental capacity.

The real issue is the fact that three years prior to the painting exchange, Ms. Clark signed two new wills within six weeks of each other.  The first left her $400 million fortune to her family (the great-grandchildren from her father's first marriage); the second will cut them completely out of the fortune.  Instead the second will indicated Ms. Clark wanted her Santa Barbara, California home made into museum, gave millions of dollars to her nurse, gave a Monet masterpiece valued at $40 million to the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., and gave huge gifts to her godchild, doctor, attorney and accountant.

So the question remains: If she was mentally capable of giving away the Degas at age 102, wouldn't she have been in her right mind when she basically disinherited her family at age 98.  However, the doctor is one of the beneficiaries of the second will and he also received substantial monetary gifts during the last years of Ms. Clark's life, so his truthfulness may be questionable.  Many family members also feel that Ms. Clark's attorney and accountant influenced her to sign a new will.  The attorney and accountant deny that charge.

To read more about this story there are several good web articles.  The most comprehensive is this one by MSNBC.  This MSNBC article give more information on the battle for Ms. Clark's estate such as her jewelry and apartments.  This article by the Daily Mail has old photos of Huguette Clark.  Here is a related article from the Santa Barbara Independent newspaper online where Ms. Clark wanted to built her museum.

In my next post I'll talk more about the exhibition and my favorite paintings in the museum's permanent collection. Until then, thank you for taking the time to read and feel free to leave a comment.

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