MISSING ART: Even the FBI couldn’t solve the mystery: How did a $10-million Degas masterpiece apparently stolen from Huguette Clark’s Manhattan apartment get to a wall in an H&R Block founder’s home in Kansas?
As a result, the painting of a ballerina “Danseuse Faisant des Pointes” will never grace the walls of the proposed $200-million art museum in Santa Barbara, as Clark envisioned in her last will.
In 1991, the reclusive Clark moved from her $55-million Fifth Avenue apartment complex to a hospital room, leaving her art collection behind — but not forgotten, according to a report by Bill Dedman, an msnbc.com reporter.
A year or two later, her then-attorney, Donald Wallace, learned that the painting was missing. Most art collectors would have had the cops in pronto and reported the apparent theft to the international Art Loss Register, a clearing house for information about stolen art.
Clark hated publicity and didn’t want to pursue the matter, but the FBI was called in anyway. Agents barged into her hospital room — Clark wasn’t sick, reportedly, just reclusive — but she discouraged them from investigating, according to Dedman.
This nondisclosure cleared the way for a well-dressed man to walk into the Peter Findlay Gallery, a few minutes’ walk from Clark’s apartment, in 1993. Findlay described him to Dedman as “a European gentleman, seemingly from a good family,” who said he had inherited a Degas that had been in the family for many years and wanted help selling it.
Findlay said he did everything possible to check the painting’s history, including consulting the Art Loss Register. Could a thief, aware that Clark hadn’t listed it as stolen, have just put the colorful painting under his arm and walked a few blocks to the gallery?
At some point after this, Henry Bloch (yes, correct spelling), the “H” in H&R Block (the tax-return company), happened by the gallery and bought the Degas for an undisclosed price. But in 2005, a New York auction house noticed that the Degas known as “Danseuse Faisant des Pointes,” or “Dancer Making Points,” owned by Clark, was apparently the same one sold to Bloch.
In 2007, the U.S. attorney’s office issued a subpoena to Bloch, asking him to turn over the painting for an investigation. The attorney for Bloch and his wife, Marion, took the position that it was theirs, fair and square, and disputed that it had been stolen. Clark’s attorney argued that the FBI file showed that it had been reported as stolen.
“I was shocked when I heard from the FBI that the Degas was stolen,” Findlay told Dedman. Oddly, although Findlay knew enough about the mysterious “European gentleman” to transfer the sales proceeds to him, he was unable to identify the man sufficiently to allow the FBI to trace the possible thief.
Such is life in the Manhattan art scene.
A legal wrangle ensued. Clark wanted the Degas back, but the last thing she wanted was to sue for it and get involved in a messy public squabble. A deal was proposed, one that assured that the “stolen” painting remained in the Blochs’ living room in Mission Hills, Kansas, between the Toulouse-Lautrec and the Seurat. If Clark would donate her stolen painting to Kansas City’s Nelson-Atkins Museum, the Blochs would give up ownership. But they could keep it in their home until their deaths, upon which it would revert to the museum.
The museum appraised the Degas at $10 million, and Clark got a charitable deduction on her “donation.” And so, in October 2008 at the Bloch home, a family representative handed the painting to a Clark attorney, who walked out to a car and handed it to a museum official, who handed it back to a Bloch representative, and the ballerina went back to her place on the wall. It was done so secretly that few at the museum knew of it.
But there was a catch. Nelson-Atkins insisted on a statement from a doctor that the aged Clark was of sound mind when she made the $10-million gift. Clark’s semi-retired physician, Dr. Henry S. Singman, was happy to cooperate.
But wait: Clark’s distant relatives, now challenging her two wills, pointed out that Clark had left Singman $100,000 in one will and also given him annual gifts ranging from $60,000 to $115,000, according to Dedman. If he had found her incompetent, the gifts would have been invalid, they argued.
Clark died last year at 104. The FBI case remains open, according to Dedman.