Recovery of Lost or Stolen Art: The Case of the Missing Lipchitz

Jacques Lipchitz was a Lithuanian-born Cubist sculptor best known for abstract “transparent” sculptures.  He moved to Paris in 1909 to study at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and thereafter joined a group of artist that included Pablo Picasso and Amedeo Modigliani.  He became a French citizen in 1924.  When the Nazis began to occupy Paris during WWII, Lipchitz who was Jewish fled France to escape deportation to the death camps.  He arrived in the US as an asylum seeker and eventually settled in 1949 in New York State in the town of Hastings-on-Hudson in Westchester County.

In 1928-29 while still in Paris, Lipchitz sculpted an erotic piece originally titled “The Couple.”  Considered shocking when it was first exhibited in Paris in 1929, Lipchitz change the title to the more ambiguous “The Cry” in order to later exhibit the sculpture in Amsterdam.  The sculpture kept this title when Lipchitz imported it to the US in order to avoid confiscation as pornography by American customs authorities.

In 1948, Lipchitz married Yulla Halberstadt, also a sculptor, with whom he had his only child Lolya. After Lipchitz died in 1973, his wife Yulla took up with a self-styled psychic and music producer Biond Fury (who also once owned John Lennon’s white suit that Lennon wore on the Abbey Road album cover) and lived with him for the last 17 years of her life until 2003.

In 1997 Yulla made an inter vivos gift to Fury of “The Cry” by inscribing the following handwritten message on the back of a photo of the sculpture:   “I gave this sculpture, ‘The Cry’ to my good friend, Biond Fury in appreciation for all he did for me during my long illness. With love and warm wishes for a Happy Future, Yulla Lipchitz/Oct. 2, 1997, New York.”  Fury subsequently sold his interest in “The Cry” in 2005 to Toronto art collector David Mirvish for $220,000.  Mirvish then sought delivery of the sculpture to Toronto.

Unbeknownst to both Fury and Mirvish, Hanno Mott, Yulla’s son by a first marriage and her executor, had loaned the sculpture to the Tuilleries Gardens in Paris in 1998, unaware of the gift.  Neither Fury nor Mirvish had any idea that the sculpture was no longer in New York.  Mott further claimed that he had sold the sculpture to the Marlborough International Fine Art Establishment, along with two other sculptures, for $1 million. 

To determine the rightful ownership of “The Cry,” Mott commenced an action in New York County Surrogate’s Court against Mirvish.   Mirvish  filed a cross motion for summary judgment asking that the court find the decedent’s inter vivos gift to be valid.  Mirvish also sued Mott in Supreme Court for replevin and conversion to recover possession of the sculpture.

The Surrogate’s Court ruled in favor of Mirvich, finding that the inter vivos gift to Fury had been completed, and that Fury thus has the right to sell his interest to Mirvish.  Mott appealed the decision and the Appellate Division, First Department found in Mott’s favor, finding that Mirvish’s claims in replevin and conversion were time-barred by the three-year Statute of Limitations and that the accrual on the Statute of Limitations began on the date that the conversion tool place, that is, on the date when the sculpture left New York for the Tuilleries Gardens in 1998.  In essence, the court found that Mirvish was too late in filing his claims.  The fact that neither Fury nor Mirvish had any knowledge that “The Cry” had been transported to Paris was immaterial. Mirvish appealed.

The New York Court of Appeals disagreed with the First Department.  The Court found that Fury’s possession of the photo with the handwritten note by Yulla meant that Yulla’s inter vivos gift to Fury had been “delivered.”  Thus all of the elements of an inter vivos gift had been satisfied:  a present transfer; a delivery of the gift, and acceptance by Fury.  Fury thus had every right to sell his interest to Mirvish who was indeed the rightful owner of the sculpture.

What lessons can we learn from this case?  First, one’s executor should be made aware of any inter vivos gifts, including artworks.  Mott, who was an attorney, would not on behalf of the Lipchitz family have loaned the sculpture or sold it to Marlborough had he been made aware of the gift. Second, to avoid having a claim for lost or stolen art dismissed because of a statute of limitations, it is best to file a claim for replevin and conversion as soon as the artwork is found missing.  And third, a buyer of artwork should examine the provenance of the artwork carefully, noticing any gaps or suspicious ownership claims.  

If you would like to discuss your own personal situation with me, if lost or stolen artwork is part of an estate,  or you would like to make an inter vivos gift  tailored to your needs, you can get a free 30-minute consultation simply by filling out this contact form. I will get back to you promptly.

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Alexander Hamilton, Trusts and Estates Attorney: Part 2

In June 1801, Hamilton was summoned to the deathbed of Robert Richard Randall who resided in a mansion and farm called Minto.  Minto Farm, located at Broadway between Eighth and Tenth Street in what is now Greenwich Village, sat on 21 acres with a mansion and other buildings.  Hamilton had once owned part of the property in partnership with John Jay and Isaac Roosevelt before selling the parcel to Baron Poellitz in 1787. In 1790 Robert Randall had purchased the farm and mansion formerly owned by the British Andrew Eliot, Collector of the Port, from Anne Stuart, baronne  von Poellnitz, the wife of Frederick Charles Hans Bruno, baron von Poellnitz.  Hamilton had also been involved in the sale and purchase of the property by Randall because he managed the Poellnitz’s affairs in the United States.

Hamilton was counsel to Randall’s sister Catharine Brewerton, and it is likely through that relation that he was asked by Robert to draft his Will.   In addition, Randall knew that Hamilton shared his philanthropic vision for the support of aging sailors.   George Washington, Hamilton, and Randall were all members of the very prestigious Marine Society.  Hamilton, John Marshall (who would become Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court and who would play a part later in this story), and Leonard Lispenard (a wealthy merchant and large landowner of what is now TriBeCa, and commemorated by street names for both his first and last names) all served as presidents of the Marine Society that had been founded by Robert’s father, Captain Thomas Randall.

Captain Thomas Randall had made his fortune as a privateer (or buccaneer), a private person authorized by a government to attack and plunder enemy ships during wartime.  Thomas Randall had been a part owner of “La Jeune Babe” from 1773-1776 with Stephen Girard, who personally saved the U.S. Government from financial collapse during the War of 1812 and one of the wealthiest people at the time. Thomas Randall died in 1797 after a long maritime, governmental (he was Vice-Consul to China), and philanthropic career.  He had been the founder of the Marine Society in New York for the relief of sailors and their families.  Upon his death, his fortune was distributed in large part to his three children:  Paul R. Randall, Catharine Brewerton, and Robert Richard Randall.

It came as no surprise to Hamilton then that Robert Randall chose to leave his fortune in trust for the purpose of maintaining and supporting aging sailors.  But what Hamilton did next was pure genius:  he drafted a perpetual testamentary charitable trust that would be made viable by an act of the state legislature, thereby creating a road map for the legislature to transfer property for charitable purposes without the use of confiscation or eminent domain.  In addition, this Will provision established the private right of an individual to transfer property to a charitable corporation.  The charity would be created for the benevolent purpose of supporting fifty or more aging sailors from the proceeds of the rents from the residuary estate.   Here is the genius clause in its entirety:

“Sixthly.  As to and concerning all the rest, residue, and remainder of my estate, both real and personal, I give, devise, and bequeath the same unto the Chancellor of the State of New- York, the Mayor and Recorder of the city of New- York, the President of the Chamber of Commerce in the city of New- York, the President and Vice President of the Marine Society of the city of New-York, the senior Minister of the Episcopal Church in the said city, and the senior Minister of the Presbyterian Church in the said city ; to have and to hold, all and singular the said rest, residue, and remainder of my said real and personal estate, unto them, the said Chancellor of the State of New- York, Mayor of the city of New- York, the Recorder of the city of New-York, the President of the Chamber of Commerce, President and Vice President of the Marine Society, senior Minister of the Episcopal Church, and senior Minister of the Presbyterian Church in the said city, for the time being, and their respective successors in the said offices, forever, to, for, and upon the uses, trusts, intents, and purposes, and subject to the direction and appointments hereinafter mentioned, and declared concerning the same ; that is to say, out of the rents, issues and profits of the said rest, residue, and remainder of my said real and personal estate, to erect and build upon some eligible part of the land upon which I now reside, an Asylum, or Marine Hospital, to be called ” The Sailors’ Snug Harbor,” for the purpose of maintaining and supporting aged, decrepit, and worn-out sailors, as soon as they, my said charity Trustees, or a majority of them, shall judge the proceeds of the said estate will support fifty of the said sailors, and upwards. And I do hereby direct, that the income of the said real and personal estate, given as aforesaid to my said charity Trustees, shall forever hereafter be used and applied for supporting the Asylum or Marine Hospital hereby directed to be built, and for maintaining sailors of the above description therein, in such manner as the said Trustees, or a majority of them, may, from time to time, or their successors in office may, from time to time, direct. And it is my intention, that the institution hereby directed and created, should be perpetual, and that the above mentioned officers for the time being, and their successors, should forever continue and be the governors thereof, and have the superintendence of the same : and it is my will and desire, that if it cannot legally be done, according to my above intention, by them, without an act of the Legislature, it is my will and desire that they will, as soon as possible, apply for an act of the Legislature to incorporate them for the purposes above specified. And I do further declare it to be (my) will and intention, that the said rest, residue, and remainder of my real and personal estate should be, at all events, applied for the uses and purposes above set forth ; and that it is my desire, all courts of law and equity will so construe this, my said Will, as to have the said estate appropriated to the above uses, and that the same should, in no case, for want of legal form or otherwise, be so construed, as that my relations, or any other persons, should heir, possess, or enjoy my property, except in the manner and for the uses herein above specified. And, lastly, I do nominate and appoint the Chancellor of the State of New- York for the time being, at the time of my decease, the Mayor of the city of New York for the time being, the Recorder of the city of New- York for the time being, the President of the Chamber of Commerce for the time being, the President and Vice President of the Marine Society of the city of New-York for the time being, the senior Minister of the Episcopal Church in the city of New- York, and the senior Minister of the Presbyterian Church in the said city, for the time being, and their successors in office after them, to be the executors of this my last Will and Testament.”

Within five years after the death of Robert Randall, the New York legislature, on the application of the trustees who were also the executors of the Will, passed a law that constituted the persons holding the offices named in the Will and their successors as a corporation by the name of “The Trustees of the Sailor’s Snug Harbor” so that they could execute the trust in the Will.

Of course, this novel clause would not go without legal challenge, one that would reach the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Inglis v. Trustees of Sailor’s Snug Harbor, 28 U.S. 99 (1830).  That case and its aftermath will be the subject of Part Three of this story.  Stay tuned!

#AlexanderHamilton #Hamilton #SailorsSnugHarbor

Alexander Hamilton, Trusts and Estate Attorney: Part 1

When we think of Alexander Hamilton, we think of him as George Washington’s aide-de-camp, as the writer of the majority of the Federalist Papers, as this country’s first Secretary of the Treasury, and the founder of the New York Post. Less well known is Hamilton’s career as an attorney and the lasting impact that he had as a practicing lawyer, a practicing estates lawyer.

After leaving public service, Hamilton established his law practice in New York. Well-known for his pro bono work with destitute women and orphans, Hamilton was also an astute corporate and trusts and estates attorney. Because of his brilliance in these domains, he wrote a Last Will and Testament that not only created the wealthiest and most successful charitable bequest in New York history, the Sailors’ Snug Harbor for aging sailors, but the trust he created would later establish the right of the State to create corporations in response to charitable bequests in Wills. An ardent advocate of individual property rights, Hamilton drafted a Will that not only withstood legislative debate but also a legal challenge by an heir of the testator that would end up in the US Supreme Court.

What made this trust and estates practice unique was that Hamilton was carving out new legal ground when it came to estates. Prior to the revolution, all lands had been the property of the Crown. The original grantee would then sell off parcels of land under his original grant. The Treaty of Paris (1783) that ended the Revolutionary War also put an end of any residuary rights held by the Crown, but this only meant that a landowner in the United States no longer had any allegiance to the British Crown. Land ownership per se was not addressed by the Treaty.

During the colonial period in New York City, the merchant class under both the Dutch and the English held land by occupying it and forcibly holding it. Some of the large estates were owned by Loyalists (or Tories) who remained loyal to the British Crown during the Revolution. After the Revolution, under the leadership of New York’s first governor (and future vice president under both Thomas Jefferson and James Madison) George Clinton, the legislature passed three laws that effectively confiscated the property of the former Loyalists and forfeited their rights to their land: the Confiscation Act (1779), the Citation Act (1782), and the Trespass Act (1783). Hamilton opposed these laws as flouting fundamental democratic property rights, and he defended Loyalists against these takings by the State. All the while, he was looking for a way to the State to legitimately transfer land without the use of confiscation or eminent domain. The opportunity presented itself with the drafting of the Last Will and Testament of Robert Richard Randall.

The story will continue in Part 2 of this story…

The Presumption of Due Execution:The Importance of an Attorney-supervised Will Execution Ceremony

In a contested probate proceeding, proponents of the Last Will and Testament being offered for probate must submit evidence establishing a prima facie case for probate.  Those who object to the probate must raise a material issue of fact.  One such challenge concerns the due execution of the Will.

These days, there are any number of websites that can be used to create generic Last Wills and Testaments.   While these options may seem more cost-effective than hiring an attorney to draft a Will, in the end they may prove to be very costly options, especially in those cases where there is a Will contest.  In addition to not having the benefit of the advice of an attorney knowledgeable in New York’s Estates, Powers, and Trusts Law for the preparation of this very important document, a person availing himself/herself of these low-cost options also deprives himself/herself of something invaluable:  the presumption of due execution.

How does this work in practice?  When an attorney drafts a Will, s/he will then arrange for a Will execution ceremony with the testator and the attesting witnesses present.  The attorney not only supervises the Will execution, but explains the legal significance ceremony to the attesting witnesses and asks the testator certain questions in front of the witnesses to ascertain certain facts being attested to by the witnesses and to establish the publication requirement.  Where the execution ceremony of a Will is supervised by the attorney who drafted the Will, the presumption of due execution exists.

The presumption of due execution creates a significant deterrent to someone who contest a Will offered to probate. In Matter of Leach, 3 AD3d 763, 764 (2004), the testator had a brother with whom he was not close.  The testator, perhaps anticipating a Will contest, hired an attorney to draft his Will. As part of his regular preparation for the drafting and execution of a Will, the attorney whom the testator retained gathered information about  the testator’s family, his assets, and how he wanted to dispose of those assets

When the testator died and his Will was offered for probate, his brother contested the probate alleging, among other things, a lack of due execution.   Both witnesses, the attorney who drafted the Will, and his secretary were deposed.  The attorney testified as to as to his usual routine for the preparation and execution of a Will, and to the facts and circumstances surrounding the execution of the Will.  The Surrogate’s Court of Chenango County admitted the Will to probate, and the brother appealed.

The Appellate Division, Third Department, affirmed the Surrogate’s Court’s ruling because, among other things, the petitioner had met her burden of proof of due execution;  “When an attorney drafts a will and supervises its execution, a presumption of regularity is raised that the will was properly executed.”   Because the Will had been drafted by the attorney who then supervised its execution, the presumption of due execution existed and the petition was able to meet her burden of proof on the issue of due execution.  The burden of proof then shifted to the respondent to produce admissible evidence creating a triable issue of fact.  Arguments are not enough to meet this burden of proof.

Will contests are an expensive proposition for those offering a Will to probate.  When a Will is not prepared by an attorney and that attorney does not supervise its execution, then that Will does not carry with it the presumption of due execution.  Hiring an attorney to draft this exceedingly important document may just be the wisest expenditure that you can make.  You will ensure that those left behind have the the presumption of due execution in their arsenal should they need to defend your Last Will and Testament.

What Constitutes Delivery of a Gift?

We all understand what delivery of a gift means, or so we think.    After all, we all receive gifts and these are delivered by the donor, by a mail carrier, or by a delivery service.  When the item arrives, it has been delivered.  But at law, the concept of the “delivery” of a gift is much more complicated.

When a person makes a gift to another during the donor’s lifetime, this is called an inter vivos gift.   At times, the person making the gift wishes to retain possession of the gift, all the while “gifting” the item in question to another person.  In such a situation, when is the item delivered?  To determine the answer, we are going to look at the inter vivos “delivery” of a significant artwork:  Gustav Klimt’s  “Schloss Kammer am Attersee II,” which sold at auction in 1997 for $23,590,177.

In the case of Gruen v. Gruen, 68 N.Y.2d 48, 505 N.Y.S.2d 849, 496 N.E.2d 869 (1986), Victor Gruen was a prominent architect of Austrian origin with offices in New York and Los Angeles.  He purchased “Schloss Kammer am Attersee II” by noted Austrian artist Gustav Klimt in 1959.   Two important events occurred in Victor’s life in 1963:  he remarried a woman named Kemija, the defendant in this case, and his son Michael by a previous marriage, the plaintiff, turned 21.   Upon his son’s achieving majority, Victor gifted him with the painting, a gift that Victor memorialized in two letters signed by him and which were sent to his son Michael.  The painting remained in Victor’s possession for the remainder of his life, except for those times when it was loaned out for exhibition purposes.

For the purposes of an inter vivos gift, three elements must be met.  The first element is “delivery.”  Delivery can be accomplished by a writing or “instrument” to the donee.  It is the delivery of the written instrument from the donor to the donee that fulfills this first requirement.  In the case of Victor Gruen, he delivered the letters not only to his son but copies were also sent to his lawyer and his accountant.

This also goes to show the second element for an inter vivos gift:  donative intent.  The donor must intend to make a transfer of present ownership to the donee.  Merely intending to give something to someone in the future is not sufficient.  The transfer of ownership with an inter vivos gift is immediate.   What can be postponed, however, is the right of enjoyment.  The donor can continue to enjoy the tangible asset until s/he dies, so long as s/he intends to transfer a present ownership right to the donee.  In effect, the donor grants himself a life estate in the tangible asset.

The third element for the completed transfer of an inter vivos gift is acceptance by the donee.  The legal presumption is that, absent a renunciation, a gift is deemed accepted if the gift is beneficial to the donee.   Since Michael Gruen never renounced or repudiated the gift of the painting, either verbally or through his actions, the gift was deemed accepted.  Even the fact that he did not declare the painting in financial affidavits that he submitted as part of his divorce action in 1973 was insufficient to show that Michael had not accepted the painting.

Why is this legal concept of delivery so important?  It’s because inter vivos gifts are often part of an estate planning strategy to reduce the corpus of one’s estate by using gifts during one’s lifetime, or as a tax credit on his/her income taxes using charitable trusts.  But unless all three elements of “delivery” are met, the gift will fail and will be subject to taxes and penalties.

If you would like to discuss your own personal situation with me, or how an inter vivos gift can be tailored to your needs, you can get a free 30-minute consultation simply by filling out this contact form. I will get back to you promptly.

When Is a Child an Heir under New York Law?

In days gone by, legitimate heirs were the product of a legitimate marriage.   Any child born of a legitimate wife was considered to be the heir of her husband.  Hence, a woman’s virginity prior to marriage was a necessary precondition of the propertied classes, as was her fidelity during marriage.  Adultery by the wife was a crime against property for it chanced to produce an heir who was not the issue of her spouse, thereby depriving the legitimate heirs of a portion of their birthright.    Of course, a man could sow his “seed” far and wide and, unless he recognized the child as his own, the illegitimate child would never inherit from the father.  

But family construction is much more fluid these days, and the laws of New York have sought to respond to these changes.  The legal standard remains the best interest of the child, and the laws seek to protect the child’s welfare.  Let us look at a few of the more common scenarios where establishing legal paternity means that the child will also inherit from his/her father in intestacy.

 A.  Child Born of an Unwed Mother

While our society and our laws no longer impose the stigma of illegitimacy or bastardy on an innocent child, the laws governing intestacy in New York nonetheless provide the parameters for defining who is a legitimate heir.  This is necessary to protect the rights of succession of legally-recognized descendants and to arrange for the orderly transfer of property. 

Until 1997,  no formal acknowledgment was required by the father for the mother to list his name as the child’s father.   But because paternity brings with it a host of legal and financial obligations, New York State’s Public Health Law §4135 now requires that the father fill out and sign a form formally acknowledging legal paternity of the child.   The law was passed to prevent fraud.

A putative father can also petition the court for an order of filiation to establish paternity.  The court may order DNA testing in order to establish filiation.  Putative fathers are also encouraged to register with the New York State Putative Father Registry (a non-public registry) so that they can be notified should the child, for example, be put up for adoption.

With an acknowledgment of paternity, the child is vested with certain rights, including inheritance rights, rights to support until age 21 or emancipation, Social Security survivor benefits, among others.  The father also gains support obligations and rights such as the right to refuse adoption or foster care of the child, the right to consent to medical treatment for the child, and the rights of shared custody and visitation, among others.

It is worth noting here that if the putative father is under the age of 18, he does not have the legal capacity to establish paternity in this way (or in court) without legal representation.  As a minor he cannot enter into a legally binding contract.  The contract is voidable.  However, upon reaching majority the putative father can expressly ratify the contract, and the ratification brings with it all of the rights and obligations of paternity.

B. Adopted Child

Adoption was uncommon prior to the 19th century, and today remains the province of each state to govern. In New York, adopted in children may inherit from their adoptive parents but not from their biological parents, unless the biological parent specifically names the adopted out child as a beneficiary in a duly executed Will. The law also permits step-parent adoption and second parent adoption in cases of same-sex couples. Where a child has been conceived through surrogacy, a practice not permitted in New York, then the non-biological parent(s) must petition the court for paternity in the case of the father and for adoption in the case of the second  mother. 

C. A Child Born of a Marriage but Where the Father is not the Wife’s Husband

Because a child born of a legal marriage is presumptively the husband’s child, this raises special concerns for both the husband and the biological father.  As we discuss these scenarios, it is important to remember that the best interests of the child remains the legal standard.

Should the biological father wish to be declared the legal father of the child, then either the mother or the alleged father can petition the Family Court.  The petition will state that the child was not a product of the marriage, that the mother is married but not to the alleged father, and that the mother and the alleged father had sexual relations during which time the child was allegedly conceived.  The alleged father may also provide an affidavit stating these same facts and admitting paternity. 

If the non-biological father does not wish to block the challenge to paternity, then he may provide an affidavit of “no access”  in which he will swear that he had no sexual relations with his wife during the time period when the child could have been conceived.   The legal presumption for the time of conception is between 266 and 299 days from the beginning of the mother’s last menstrual period.

It is worth noting that New York public policy limits third party challenges to paternity of a child born in wedlock.  Thus  the husband has the right to block this petition if he wishes to raise the child as his own.  The court has the right to deny DNA testing if in the court’s opinion this would not be in the best interest of the child, especially if the child is no longer an infant and has been part of the family unit for some time. 

The legal principle of equitable estoppel may also prevent a husband or wife from challenging paternity several years after the birth.  Thus is particularly true where the non-biological father has established himself in the role of the father, where both husband and wife have held out the non-biological father as the father of the child, and where the child has relied upon these representations of paternity 

Conclusion

Because of the importance of establishing and clarifying filiation, it is important that parents take the necessary steps to ensure that their child is properly filiated so that his/her inheritance rights are secure.

If you would like to discuss your own personal situation with me, or how a revocable living trust for your digital assets can be tailored to your needs, you can get a free 30-minute consultation simply by filling out this contact form. I will get back to you promptly.