Diving Into The Dumb Legal Mystery Over A Missing $10 Million Painting

A painting disappeared from a rich heiress' home one day. It popped back up 15 years later, and no one knows who took it.
Diving Into The Dumb Legal Mystery Over A Missing $10 Million Painting

Imagine being so rich that you own a $10 million painting. Now imagine being so rich that you would be fine if that painting were to suddenly go missing from your home. This is what happened with an Edgar Degas painting that belonged to eccentric copper heiress Huguette Clark. 

For a quick background on Clark, she lived to be 104 years old, had a net worth of about $400 million, lived in a hospital for 20 years, and she was obsessed with privacy to an absurd degree. Her life was a surreal cycle of mansions that she didn’t use and collecting valuable pieces of art. 

Her obsession with privacy and her collection of art would prove to be the combo that allowed someone to make off with a $10 million piece. The painting in question was a ballerina done by French Impressionist Edgar Degas in 1879 or 1880. In the early 1990s, the Degas disappeared from Clark’s apartments in Manhattan. 

Edgar Degas/Wiki Commons

Dancer Making Points by Edgar Degas, the notorious missing painting

Clark was not the one to notice or report the lost Degas ballerina. She was in the hospital at the time, so instead her lawyer was the one who realized the painting was missing. Against Clark’s wishes, the lawyer contacted the FBI. 

The privacy-minded heiress told the FBI to stop pursuing the case in 1992. She never filed an insurance claim for the painting, and she did not list it on the Art Loss Register. Clark believed that an investigation would dig too deeply into her privacy.

With Clark uninterested in looking further into the painting, it was put on the backburner until 2005, when it was learned that the Degas was in the possession of Henry and Marion Bloch. If these names are not familiar, Henry is the H in H&R Block, and his fortune was about what you might expect from the founder of one of the largest tax prep companies in the country. Once the FBI caught on to the fact that the missing painting was found, they contacted Bloch. However, the Blochs had reason to claim they legitimately owned the painting.

The Blochs were art collectors, and in 1993, they purchased a Degas painting from a gallery in New York. The gallery owner had done what he thought was a thorough check when he purchased and later sold the piece. The Degas ballerina was not on the Art Loss Register, and there were no other obvious red flags that it was stolen. For everyone involved in the transaction, it seemed as though Henry and Marion Bloch legally bought a painting. 

This had the potential to be a complicated legal kerfuffle. Henry and Marion Bloch wanted to keep the piece, and they did have legal precedent to say they had a right to. The FBI was not certain that the painting was stolen. There was no evidence to show what happened to it. All that was known was that one day it was hanging in Clark’s apartment, and then it wasn’t. Plus, Clark had made no efforts to get the painting back. These factors could mean that Clark lost her rights to claim that it was hers.

Once again, though, Clark’s focus on privacy meant that she didn’t want the matter to go to court. So instead, the two sides reached an agreement. The Blochs were heavily involved in Kansas City’s Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, and their art collection was to go to the museum when they died. In the bizarre, complicated agreement reached in October 2008, Clark donated the painting to the art museum, and the museum allowed the Blochs to hold on to it. Clark got a tax deduction for her donation, and the Blochs got to keep their painting, more or less. 

And the moral of this story, as is often the case, is that rich people are really, really weird.

Top Image: Edgar Degas/Wiki Commons

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