When Art Imitates Divorce: The Splitting of An Art Fortune Has Lessons for The Rest of Us 

clients looking at painting in art gallery

An acrimonious divorce resulted in a recording-setting art auction for Sotheby’s when the “Macklowe Collection” garnered $676.1 million in sales this past Monday.

The blue-chip art collection, including pieces by Jackson Pollack, Mark Rothko and Andy Warhol, was acquired by real estate magnate Harry and Linda Marlowe, a board member at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, over the course of their 50-year marriage. 

The collection was a source of great pride for the couple. During their divorce, however, the amassed art turned into a source of heated conflict as both spouses dug in on asset division. Linda wanted to keep the collection intact, but Harry disagreed. Neither spouse could agree to a value on the collection. After wrangling over the art for three years, a judge finally ordered the pair to sell off everything and split the proceeds. 

As  the NYPost reported: 

[Insider Vicky] Ward told The Post, “The art collection was what bonded Harry and Linda. If there had been no art collection they would have never stayed together. Harry absolutely respected her eye.”

But, Ward added, “This was the toxic marriage from hell. The level of vitriol, but at the same time this extraordinary bond, was there. They needed each other and they destroyed each other.”

Ward maintained that Linda wanted to keep the collection together, even after the divorce, and Harry pressed to break it up because “she forced him to sell the General Motors Building, which symbolized the apex of his career. This auction is the ultimate tit for tat.”

Do you have a collection — of art, wine, antiques, or even Beanie Babies — that’s a sore spot in your divorce? Here are three takeaways from the Macklowe divorce and art collection sell off that can help maintain perspective when dividing collection with high value and sentimentality.

Have your collection appraised and valued by a neutral source. Problems with the appraisal of the Macklowe Collection became a major factor bogging down the couple’s divorce. If you and your spouse have a considerable collection of any kind, have it appraised, but make sure it’s with an appraiser without a stake in your divorce. Rule of thumb: Have your collection appraised without disclosing your divorce to avoid the appraiser low-balling you in hopes of getting a bargain themselves. If warranted, you may wish to have multiple appraisals to get a good baseline average. Depending on the nature of the collection, both spouses may wish to engage their own independent appraiser.

Think of your collections as bargaining chips. It’s described that Linda wanted to keep the collection, but Harry refused as payback for another asset that was sold. When marital asset division becomes an emotional “tit for tat,” it’s time for both parties to step back and reassess. Would Linda have been willing to give up her claim to the GE building and other real estate for the entirety of the art collection? This type of the solution may have worked for the pair, but it sounds like anger and revenge may have gotten in the way of finding workable solutions. If you find yourself becoming so emotional that you are fighting over things like who gets the toaster, take a breather. Come back to the negotiating when you (and your spouse are in a better headspace). 

Do either of you have a greater stake in the collection? The Macklowes only started to collect after they were married, which placed the art in the “marital property” category, and thus subject to division in their divorce. Is your collection as clear cut, or has one of you been collecting wine or antiques, etc. for years, and these solo collectibles are now mixed in with items acquired during your marriage? To document what is yours, find receipts, bills of sales, photos, and other proof that you purchased or obtained the items prior to marriage.  These can be separated out. For some couples who collect, one spouse may take the lead role, going to estate sales or surfing eBay, or building a wine cellar in the home. Was that spouse you? If so, you may be able to claim more ownership over the collection due to this “sweat equity.”

Try to make decisions yourself before a judge decides for you. The judge asked both Linda and Harry to come to an agreement on the worth of the art collection. The judge was described as “frustrated” by the lack of progress and declared that he was taking matters into the court’s hands, issuing an order for the auction to take place. At this point, Linda and Harry lost control of the outcome of their matter. In your situation, explore whether out of court methods can work for your and your spouse to reach an agreement on assets. Some parties can sit down together, or with the help of their attorneys, or use other collaborative methods like mediation.

Have questions about your divorce? Have a collection and want to know your options for asset division? Learn your rights and get your case evaulated by contacting us today to schedule a consultation with one of our family law specialist attorneys. Get a strategy that you can immediately use to make progress in your case. Call us at 888-888-0919, or please click the green button below. 

Schedule an Initial Consultation