Auction of Calder Sculptures Example of How Art Can be Handled at Death

May 1, 2012

Well-known architect and designer Eliot Noyes died thirty five years ago, in 1977. Some of his prized possessions were large mobiles by famous sculptor Alexander Calder. Calder was a personal friend of Noyes, and the artwork was commissioned especially to fit the family home. Upon Noyes's death there was no major issue with what would happen to the sculptures, because his wife inherited all of the family assets. Estate planning had been conducted such that she could keep the mobiles without having any complicated tax issues.

However, Molly Noyes passed away in 2010, leaving behind four children who will split the family assets. Unfortunately, the family did not specifically decide how certain possessions would be divided after the matriarch's death, and so they were left in a conundrum. At first the children did not want to give up the unique, valuable art that had been in their family home for decades. Eventually they decided that it would be best to sell the pieces. When talking about the valuable sculptures one child explained, "There are four of us and two of them. The math didn't work."

That is why two sculptures will be auctioned off at Christie's next week. One of the pieces, Untitled, is expected to fetch $3 - $4 million while the second, Snow Flurry, is valued slightly higher at $3.5 - $4.5 million.

The family actually has a third Calder object, a stabile called Black Beast. However, many years ago Eliot Noyes donated Black Beast to the Museum of Modern Art. The donation will finally be realized this spring as the piece is moved to its permanent location in the museum.

Our New York estate planning attorneys appreciate that in many circumstances selling valuable artwork like this is truly the best option for families. In those cases, children or other close relatives simply do not have a passion for the art or there are other complications that make liquidating the asset a sound choice.

Yet, it is important for local families to remember that just because there may not be an easy to way to perfectly split prized art or collections between children, that does not necessarily mean that the only option is to liquidate the items. New York estate plans can be personalized so that these issues are taken into account. A distribution can be arranged that perhaps offsets the value of art to one child with different assets going to another child. The most important step is simply recognizing the potential issue ahead of time and taking the time to plan for it.

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