The Emotional Business of Managing an Artist’s Estate
What happens when heirs and lawyers don't get along?
The afterlife of an artist exists in their work. But even a world-class late artist’s reputation can suffer badly from a mismanaged estate: lack of transparency and a definitive catalog raisonné, or in some cases, inaccessible archives, or squabbling heirs can tarnish an artist’s legacy, have a negative effect on their market, and halt academic research on their work.
Last week in Berlin, the Institute for Artists’ Estates—founded by Loretta Würtenberger and Daniel Tümpel—held its inaugural two-day conference around the strategic, legal, technical, and—not to be underestimated—emotional aspects of managing the estate of a deceased artist. Titled “Keeping the Legacy Alive,” speakers including artists’ heirs, museum directors, and managers of artists’ foundations discussed questions such as how to approach image copyrights in today’s fast-changing media landscape, whether or not museums should collect entire estates (of not only artists but also curators and collectors), legal and ethical questions surrounding authentication, and the importance of a catalogue raisonné for an artist’s market.
This past August, Würtenberger, who co-manages the estates of Hans Arp and Sophie Taeuber-Arp, as well as that of Keith Arnatt, published is The Artist’s Estate: A Handbook for Artists, Executors, and Heirs, a 304-page tome based on research of estate models, which will surely become a handbook for anyone responsible for an artist’s legacy, and for living artists who want to plan in advance (which, the one thing everyone speaking at the conference could agree on, is the best thing an artist can do).
The conference opened with what might be the most difficult aspect of keeping a dead artist’s legacy alive: also being its heir. A panel tilted “All Fathers Die, Not These! – Artists’ Estate Management as a Family Affair” approached the topic from first-hand experiences as presented by Flavin Judd, son of Donald Judd; Mary Moore, of the Henry Moore Estate; Max Beckmann‘s granddaughter Mayen Beckmann; and Hélène Vandenberghe, co-director of the Estate Philippe Vandenberghe and advisor to the Institute of Artists’ Estates. The talk was moderated by Madga Salvesen, author of Artists’ Estates: Reputations in Trust, published in 2005.
“It’s like going into the army not knowing how long you’re going to be there,” Flavin Judd quipped, explaining how he came to manage the Judd Foundation, making no secret of the weight of the responsibility for his father’s vision after he had realized that it couldn’t be left to the lawyers. “One, start [planning] when you’re alive,” he offered as advice. “And two, Don’t Die!”
Although the conference was abundant with lawyers and legal representatives, the topic of whether or not to involve lawyers in management came up repeatedly, with heirs and family members in particular not holding back on venting their disappointing experiences.
“If you ask a family member,” Loretta Würtenberger tried to clear the air, “they’ll advise you not to put a lawyer on the board. If you ask a lawyer, they’ll say don’t put a family member on the board!”.
She wasn’t the only one who saw the benefits of involving an outside legal professional. “Don’t fight among yourselves, and involve lawyers, or there’ll be nothing left,” said Mayen Beckmann, who looks back at a long, trans-Atlantic legal battle over the rights to her grandfather’s estate after the sisters of his second wife, Mathilde “Quappi” Beckmann, challenged them. For Mayen, the year 2020 marks the expiration of copyrights on her grandfather’s images, and with it, relieve from her duty. The estate is hard at work at completing a catalog of all his works, before their images enter the public sphere. “After three generations, no one is entitled to use that power [of copyright laws] anymore.”
The Artist’s Estate: A Handbook for Artists, Executors, and Heirs, by Loretta Würtenberger is published by Hatje Cantz
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