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Lawsuit Alleges Missouri Bank Mismanaged Painter Thomas Hart Benton's Estate


More than a hundred paintings gone, priceless works of art stored in subpar conditions, paintings sold for fire sale prices - those are the allegations put forward by a new lawsuit filed by the heirs of famous American artist Thomas Hart Benton. The lawsuit was brought this month against UMB Bank, which has managed the Benton estate since the 1970s. Dan Margolies is following the story from member station KCUR in Kansas City.



SHAPIRO: Tell us about the details of this lawsuit.

MARGOLIES: Benton's daughter and her three kids claim the bank mismanaged the Benton estate by failing to maximize the value of his paintings, murals and other works; by selling them prematurely; and used them to promote the bank in its advertising without compensating the heirs; and finally, as you said, Ari, lost track of more than a hundred works of Benton art.

SHAPIRO: For people who aren't familiar with his work, describe what Benton's paintings look like.

MARGOLIES: Right. So Benton was hugely popular in the pre-war period, and his works, for those unfamiliar with them, are marked by this sort of exaggerated curvilinear forms and shapes. And he was a leader, along with Grant Wood and others, of what's known as the American regionalism art movement. His paintings and murals depict Midwesterners and are less coast-centric than art theretofore had been.

SHAPIRO: His paintings feel quintessentially American. You've got a lot of farmers, livestock, workers, landscapes, things like that.


SHAPIRO: One of the allegations in this lawsuit is that the bank UMB treated the artwork of the Benton trusts as if it were its own. Explain what that's referencing.

MARGOLIES: Right. Well, for many decades, Ari, UMB Bank was headed by the late R. Crosby Kemper Jr., who was friends with Benton. Kemper and his wife founded a museum themselves about 25 years ago called the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art. And the lawsuit alleges the Kemper Museum has several Benton works, including one it says was gifted by Kemper to the museum. Benton's heirs, however, say in their lawsuit that an addendum to Benton's will bequeathed that work of art to another prominent Kansas City museum, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

SHAPIRO: Many of the things that the Benton heirs allege took place happened over decades. I mean, they say, for example, that UMB sold some of Benton's artworks prematurely, didn't get maximal value for them years ago. So why is the lawsuit being filed now?

MARGOLIES: Very interesting question, and that's a question I put to the heirs' lawyer. And he told me that about four years ago, the Nelson-Atkins Museum, the one I just mentioned, staged a retrospective of Benton's work that looked at his ties - his extensive ties to Hollywood. Jessie Benton, who now lives in Massachusetts - his daughter - came to see that exhibit, and that's when she discovered the bank was allegedly not storing Benton's work in a climate-controlled vault.

Andre Boyda is the heirs' lawyer.

ANDRE BOYDA: She had not been in the vault for a very, very long time. And she went down there, and she thought to herself, oh, my God; where have all the pieces gone? And that is when she reached out to me, and she asked me to just start looking into stuff.

SHAPIRO: So what has the bank said in response to this suit?

MARGOLIES: Well, the bank hasn't responded to the specific allegations in the lawsuit, although it called them misguided. The bank's president said it regretted that the Bentons are choosing to resolve the issues here through litigation, and he said the bank takes its role as trustee of Benton's art very seriously.

SHAPIRO: That's Dan Margolies, reporter with member station KCUR in Kansas City, Mo.

Thanks a lot.

MARGOLIES: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Dan was born in Brooklyn, N.Y. and moved to Kansas City with his family when he was eight years old. He majored in philosophy at Washington University in St. Louis and holds law and journalism degrees from Boston University. He has been an avid public radio listener for as long as he can remember – which these days isn’t very long… Dan has been a two-time finalist in The Gerald Loeb Awards for Distinguished Business and Financial Journalism, and has won multiple regional awards for his legal and health care coverage. Dan doesn't have any hobbies as such, but devours one to three books a week, assiduously works The New York Times Crossword puzzle Thursdays through Sundays and, for physical exercise, tries to get in a couple of rounds of racquetball per week.