Wills, Trusts & Estates Prof Blog

Editor: Gerry W. Beyer
Texas Tech Univ. School of Law

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

Estate Dispute Over Calder Sculpture

Floating cloudsAlexander Calder was a famous American sculptor, known for creating innovative kinetic sculptures powered by motors or air currents, one of which is Floating Clouds in the Aula Magna of the University City of Caracas in Venezuela, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A sculpture of Calder's was recently at the center of an estate dispute.

A man acquired the Calder sculpture directly from the artist in 1976, and when he passed away he bequeathed it to his wife, Jane, who passed away in 2001. Jane’s will left all tangible personal property and the residuary to her two stepchildren, Phyliss and Paul, in equal shares and named Paul the executor. Paul maintained possession of the work until he sold it to a gallery, Helwaser, in 2016. Does the gallery have to give the Calder sculpture or its value to Phyliss, who claimed to be the rightful owner of at least half of the work in Meaders v. Helwaser. The court of southern district of New York said no.

The court found that the distribution of all estate assets was completed by July 23, 2002, evidenced by the 2002 New York State Estate Tax Return. Phyllis argued that this meant that Paul lacked executory power over the sculpture to sell it, and the court agreed. However, the court found that "Paul’s broad discretion as executor permitted him, upon distribution of the estate to its beneficiaries, to take possession of the Work as a distributee and grant Phyliss a credit for one-half of the appraised value of the Work on that date."  The sculpture was appraised in 2001 at $30,000 and there was evidence that Phyllis had received assets to offset Paul maintaining possession of the artwork. Thus, Phyllis had no ownership interest in the piece at the time of its sale to the art gallery.

See Estate Dispute Over Calder Sculpture, Probate Stars, February 1, 2020.


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