Eastman Family Hits Court In Feud Over Motherwell - Wall Street Journal

Source: The Wall Street Journal
Saturday, February 24, 2006

The extended family of Stella McCartney, the fashion-designer daughter of former Beatle Paul McCartney, is locked in a legal battle over rights to profits from paintings by artists including Abstract Expressionist Robert Motherwell.

In a suit filed Jan. 30 in New York Supreme Court, three stepsons of the late Lee Eastman -- an entertainment lawyer, art collector and Ms. McCartney's maternal grandfather -- have accused Ms. McCartney and other Eastman family members of wrongfully selling art that should have been shared with the estate of Monique de T. Eastman, Lee Eastman's late wife and the stepsons' mother.

The suit, filed by Ms. Eastman's sons by an earlier marriage, Peter, Paul and Philip Sprayregen, maintains that proceeds from some works sold at Christie's in November should have been allocated to them as executors of their mother's estate. The plaintiffs say she owned some works outright and co-owned others with Mr. Eastman, and are requesting $1 million in compensatory damages. The suit was reported in the Baer Faxt, an art newsletter.

The suit identifies one disputed painting by name, Robert Motherwell's "Elegy to the Spanish Republic #122," which sold for $2.1 million to a private collector at the Nov. 8 auction. The suit's plaintiffs also lay claim to "additional paintings" that Ms. Eastman received from her husband or from artists. Altogether, Christie's sale of the Eastman collection brought in $48 million and included works by Matisse, Picasso, Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning, who was Mr. Eastman's client.

Philip Sprayregen, a New York real-estate broker, says his mother married Mr. Eastman in 1963. Before Mr. Eastman died in 1991, he set up a marital deduction trust, a restricted fund whose assets -- in this case, his substantial art collection -- were to be overseen jointly by his wife and son, John Eastman, an entertainment lawyer. Upon her death at 81 last May, the trust's assets passed as planned to John Eastman, his siblings and the children of their late sister, Linda Eastman McCartney. The Sprayregens didn't contest the fact they weren't named as beneficiaries, according to Mr. Sprayregen and the suit.

But Mr. Sprayregen says his mother shared ownership of several paintings that wound up in his stepfather's trust. He says his mother might have known they were included but says she didn't remove them because she was "afraid to rock the boat." She signed yearly accounts showing the trust's art inventory, he says, but he says she was "unhappy" with how works had been divided.

John Eastman declined to speak publicly about the case, as did his lawyers, family members and Christie's. Stella McCartney says that as one of seven beneficiaries of her grandfather's estate, "I had no legal say over the decision made by the estate's executors, and I have only very recently become aware of this."

New York attorney Ralph Lerner, who specializes in art law, says the suit may be "tough to prove" because all sides agree that Ms. Eastman signed documents determining the fate of most of the paintings.

A $20 Gold Coin -- For $1.9 Million

Rising global gold prices are giving a Midas-like boost to collectible gold coins.

An ounce of gold costs $548 in commodities trading, up $114 from a year earlier and near its 25-year peak, adding fuel to an active $3 billion coin market. Commonly held coins, such as the 1924 gold pieces designed by American sculptor Augustus Saint Gaudens, now sell at coin shops in top condition for $1,750, up from $1,400 a couple years ago, according to multiple dealers.

Some pieces are popping up for the first time since gold's last big boom, in the early 1980s. Last year, coin wholesaler Steven Contursi bought a 1787 gold coin known as the Brasher Doubloon for $2.9 million, breaking its 1981 auction record of $625,000. Last month, a division of auctioneer Escala Group Inc. sold a 1927 gold coin for $1.9 million, up from $176,000 when it was last auctioned in 1982. That coin is considered the rarest regular-issue 20th century U.S. gold coin that can be legally owned. Face value when it was minted: $20.

"If it's a gold coin, we can't keep it on the shelf," says Greg Roberts, president of the North American coin division of Escala.

At least 140 million Americans collect coins, the U.S. Mint says, up from 125 million two years ago. While gold coins have typically been valued for their precious-metal content, investors and hobbyists are paying more for coins containing less than a standard ounce of gold. A $10 gold piece minted in 1799 that features a patriotic eagle has only a half ounce of gold, but it is going for about $27,500 at coin shows, up from $9,500 two years ago, according to price guides.

In this market, buyers risk overpaying for low-quality coins that collectors won't want later, says consumer coin advocate Scott Travers, author of "The Coin Collector's Survival Manual." The market's blue-chip commodity, he says, consists of certified, mint-condition coins that are deemed rare or have a compelling history, such as coins from the Revolutionary War period. On the low end, undervalued coins include $20 Double Eagle coins from 1900 to 1904 in "Mint State 64" condition. (Coins are "graded" on a scale of 1 to 70, with 70 as best.)

Tory Prestera, an eye surgeon from San Diego, started collecting coins two years ago and says gold's high price has encouraged him to add more gold coins to his collection. One recent purchase: An 1898 gold piece that cost about $135,000. He stores the real thing with the rest of his collection in a bank-deposit box, but keeps a photo of his favorite as his computer screensaver. "My wife isn't too impressed," he says. "But to me it's like looking at treasure."

Write to Kelly Crow at kelly.crow@wsj.com1