Sunday, March 7, 2021

Rothko’s Estate, Daughter’s Lawsuit

Last week’s Guardian has a lengthy and moving article on Mark Rothko’s daughter, Kate Rothko Prizel, and her recollection of his suicide and her long legal battle against his estate. Here’s a short excerpt:

Kate and [her brother] Christopher [Rothko] sued the executors of their father’s estate – his accountant, Bernard Reis, the painter Theodoros Stamos, and a professor of anthropology called Morton Levine (Levine was also, until Kate took steps to remedy the situation, Christopher’s guardian) – and his gallery, the Marlborough, claiming that the former had conspired with the latter to ‘waste the assets’ of Rothko’s estate and defraud them of their proper share. The assets were 798 paintings (then estimated to be worth at least $32m). They contended that the three trustees had conspired to sell these Rothkos to the Marlborough at less than their true market value; the gallery had, for instance, got its delighted hands on one group of 100 paintings for just $1.8m, a sum it would pay over 12 years and with no interest, with a down-payment of only $200,000.

The case was to rumble on for more than four years, during which Kate was mostly living in a $90-a-week apartment in Brooklyn, watching what little money she had drain out of her bank account. It was to be seven long years before she had a Rothko of her own; if she wanted to see work by her father, her only option was to visit a gallery.

To everyone’s amazement, Kate and Christopher Rothko won, and the court issued a crushing verdict. The executors were thrown out for ‘improvidence and waste verging on gross negligence’. Reis and Stamos, long-time friends of Mark Rothko, were found to have been in conflict of interest; as executors, they could not negotiate with the Marlborough because the company had both of them on its payroll. All contracts between the Marlborough and the Rothko estate were declared void, and the judge awarded damages of more than $9m against Frank Lloyd, the founder of Marlborough Fine Art, who had laundered art through myriad Liechtenstein holding companies, and the executors.


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