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Is Joe Btfsplk Jinxing Huguette’s Museum?

Lawyers and Relatives


MIGHT NOT HAPPEN: Look, I hate to be a wet blanket. And I definitely don’t want to be another Joe Btfsplk.

Joe, you may recall, was the luckless character in Al Capp’s Li’l Abner comic strip who went around with a dark rain cloud hovering overhead. Joe was the world’s worst jinx.

Barney Brantingham

And I really don’t want to rain on Santa Barbara’s parade, with all the hoopla about the late Huguette Clark’s plans for an art museum at her hilltop East Cabrillo Boulevard mansion. I love it: Culture in the sky, a mecca of masterpieces challenging The Getty, a shining palace of paintings. Old Masters peering down at the ocean on one side, the city and mountains on the other. (And the Santa Barbara Cemetery next door, of course.) Traffic jams at the Andrée Clark Bird Refuge, named in memory of Huguette’s sister, who died young. Huguette, as you may know, died recently in New York at the age of 104.

Folks, let me break it to you easy. It may not happen. There, I said it. No need to start lining the driveway at Bellosguardo, as Huguette called her vacant manse. It might not open for years — if ever.

That’s because Huguette’s 2005 will, signed in Room 1004 at New York’s Beth Israel Hospital when she was 98, figures to soon become a legal piñata. Her relatives are expected to launch a major court attack, focusing on the controversial attorney who drew it up, Wallace Bock.

In it, Bock gave himself a hefty half-million-dollar bequest, along with total control of her properties. His sex-offender-felon accountant buddy, Irving Kamsler, also rang Huguette’s ATM for $500,000 and shares control with Bock.

The same relatives Huguette in effect told to drop dead in the will, specifically leaving them nary a dime, are expected to challenge the document. If it’s invalidated and she’s found to have died intestate (without a legal will), her estate presumably then goes to her next of kin. Since she had no children or close relatives, the estate figures to go to descendants from the first marriage of her father, a scallywag copper king of the robber baron era, Senator William A. Clark. Many knew her and visited her at some point, and, as grandchildren of her father, exchanged cards and letters and phone calls with her, according to Bill Dedman of MSNBC.com.

If her relatives succeed in having the will dumped, how likely is it that they’ll agree to have a $100-million chunk of their inheritance locked up on the West Coast in some museum? Would they sell the hill and its drafty mansion and split the proceeds?

Who knows; with $400 million to play with, they might just honor Huguette’s dream by stashing her art works from the Manhattan apartment and her rare book collection, combining them with what’s already lining the walls on East Cabrillo Boulevard, and becoming patrons of the arts.

Meanwhile, the New York District Attorney is conducting a criminal investigation of Bock and Kamsler, concerning allegations that they took advantage of the trusting old lady, an eccentric recluse in a hospital room playing with dolls, and misused her assets. Neither Bock nor Kamsler has been charged with a crime, and both strenuously deny any wrongdoing.

A former paralegal in Bock’s office reported that he received many lavish gifts from Huguette, including $1.5 million for a security system where his daughter was living in Israel, and that Bock tried many times to get Huguette to sign a will with himself as a beneficiary. It looks like Bock prevailed.

New York ethics rules generally bar lawyers from including themselves as beneficiaries when drafting a client’s will, but a Bock spokesperson says it’s okay if the lawyer files a sworn statement with the court to explain why the gift is reasonable and that Bock has done so.

Then there were the quiet sales of her rare 1709 Stradivarius violin for $6 million and an 1882 Renoir for $23.5 million. (Did she get full value?) On the other hand, Huguette was certainly generous. Her will left $30 million to Hadassah Peri, her longtime nurse and companion.

Last year a DA’s investigator met with Huguette twice and found her mentally deficient and hard of hearing and with poor eyesight. Her relatives claim that Bock blocked them from seeing her in recent years. Huguette apparently distrusted strangers and suspected her kin of being after her money.

Huguette’s will runs seven pages, not hand-written by her but typed, couched in complex legalese few laymen could hope to fully understand, and initialed in her shaky script. It not only awards Bock and Kamsler a half-mil each but places them in sole control of her estate, to buy and sell, invest, hire and fire, lease any property. As some have pointed out, they stand to earn huge sums in commissions.

Huguette Clark was interred on May 26 in the family mausoleum at Woodland Cemetery in the Bronx. There was no service. The gates were locked, and her relatives were not invited.

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