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Family feud evolves into lawsuit over art sale

A family feud has erupted into a full-scale lawsuit against Sotheby's, the famous auction house, as an art collector seeks to stop the sale of a work he claims belongs to him.

The 86-year-old collector was estranged from his wife when she passed away in 2016. In happier times, the couple had reached out to graffiti artists back in the 1980s. Through their influence, many of those artists transitioned their work to canvas and became highly influential and respected for their work.

When the couple developed problems, they split but did not divorce. When the wife died, she left the vast bulk of her assets and estate, including a highly-valuable piece of graffiti art worth millions, to the couple's oldest child. She left nothing to her spouse.

Her spouse mounted a challenge to the will in court, asking for the third traditionally reserved by law for surviving spouses. As the lawsuit progressed, he learned that the painting was set for auction with an estimated price tag of $30 million -- a figure he considers extremely low for the work given the price fetched by other pieces by the same artist.

The collector says that his main interest is keeping the piece from leaving New York City -- a realistic fear if it is snapped up by a foreign collector. He says he's willing to forgo his right to any part of the work if it is donated to the city for display.

For their part, Sotheby's believes that they have a legitimate right to proceed with the auction and is fighting the lawsuit.

Cases like this illustrate how complicated disputes can sometimes become when there's no clear division of assets between estranged couples and they have different ideas about what should happen to those assets after they are gone. Challenging a will isn't necessarily common -- but when there are millions involved and a cultural heritage at stake, it is definitely worth the effort.

Source: New York Daily News, "Art collector sues Sotheby’s to stop sale of $30M Basquiat painting," Janon Fisher, May 03, 2018

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