Rauschenberg Trustees await verdict on $60 million claim

Posted on: August 13, 2014 by

Three Trustees of the Rauschenberg Revocable Trust await a decision in Florida as to whether they should receive $60 million for their “extraordinary services” to the estate of the late painter and graphic artist Robert Rauschenberg.

Bennet Grutman, Rauschenberg’s accountant, Darryl Pottorf, his companion and will executor, and Bill Goldston, his publishing partner in a fine art company, claimed remuneration from The Robert Rauschenberg Foundation in a lawsuit that commenced in 2011. Argument was finally heard and concluded in June of this year before the Lee County Circuit Court.

The Trustees, suing the Foundation for unfair payment according to “services rendered”, submitted that their expert decisions, strenuous work and personal commitments warrant fees of up to $60 million. Copious levels of correspondence were used as evidence of their efforts (reports state 11,000 emails were sent over 4 years), as well as testimonies demonstrating that managing the estate caused the Trustees extreme emotional and even physical strain.

Grutman, Pottorf and Goldston assumed shared responsibility following Rauschenberg’s death in 2008 of the Revocable Trust that had been established by the artist. Assets were to be distributed amongst beneficiaries, including The Robert Rauschenberg Foundation as the primary recipient. The Foundation, established in 1990, remains committed to continuing Rauschenberg’s legacy and instituting his core philosophy that “art can change the world”.

Following expert opinions from both parties, the defendants’ attorney Laird A. Lile countered with a valuation of $375,000 for the work. He assessed this amount based on the Lodestar method, calculating that the Trustees worked for 1,500 hours at a rate of $250 an hour. Lile considered this a “reasonable amount of time” for the Trustees to complete the work they claimed to have accomplished. It remains for Judge Jay Rosman to determine the correct amount to be awarded to the Trustees for their substantial role in managing the estate and its 7,000-plus works of art.

Bob Goldman, attorney for the Foundation, stated that Rauschenberg “trusted his three friends to do the right thing by him”. The Trustees nonetheless maintained that their input, unique insights and exhaustive knowledge of the art world significantly contributed to the estate’s growth since 2008 from $600 million to $2.2 billion.

Yet this valuation is subject to contention. Christopher Rauschenberg, the artist’s son and Chairman of the Board of Trustees, confirmed during the trial that he plans to insure the estate for $550 million next year, in contrast to its current insurance policy, set at $1.6 billion. Christopher Rauschenberg described the latter figure as a temporary estimate.

The plaintiffs nevertheless demanded a ‘fair’ percentage of the artist’s estate, assuming its value to be at the $2.2 billion mark. Contrary to Lile’s estimation according to time expended and quality of work, the Trustees asserted that without concrete records, hourly remuneration would be unreasonable and immeasurable. Pottorf himself claimed that he spent “every waking moment” on the estate. Advisor to the Trustees, Dr Donald Saff, similarly described their work as “non-stop” and “incessant”. The Trustees have already paid themselves $1.9 million each but felt their labours deserved more. The Foundation’s position was that the claim is “outrageous”.

It has also transpired that agreement is lacking between the Trustees on the fees they require and deserve. In a voicemail recorded on the phone of the Foundation’s executive director, Christy MacLear, Pottorf allegedly called the $60 million claim “absurd” and stated “I don’t need that kind of money. I already have my own.” Pottorf further admits that none of the Trustees expected to receive that amount, but rather to work towards an adequate solution. Owing to his close relationship to Rauschenberg and the personal distress the trial would have caused, Pottorf did not testify in person but outlined his views by deposition.

United States law concerning payment of Trustees is state-specific. In Florida’s Captiva Island, where Rauschenberg resided, the amount is defined in the Florida Trust Code as a “just and reasonable” fee. Without federal legislation or financial parameters, the court has heard two contrary definitions of fair payment, although both sides agree that the Trustees indeed “deserve something”. An agreement on the size of this payment, however, failed to be reached without court intervention.

The law has often questioned the motives of Trustees in handling artists’ assets and personal fees. The estates of Andy Warhol, Mark Rothko and Francis Bacon have all been subject to legal disputes and allegations of greed or mismanagement. Therefore, whether the Trustees of Rauschenberg covetously claim more than they deserve, or whether their efforts legitimately warrant a multi-million dollar fee will be decided upon by the Court.

Robert Rauschenberg was considered to be one of the world’s greatest contemporary artists. He is said to have prominently influenced trends towards representational art in America as well as Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art around the world. He is most famous for his innovative ‘Combines’ of the 1950s and his synthesis of unconventional materials, media and objects. Given Rauschenberg’s status as an active philanthropist, his friends and family claim that the artist would have been appalled by the trial. His sister, Janet Begneaud, commented: “If we hadn’t burned him up, he’d be turning over in his grave.”