What happens when an artist dies without a will? Dealer fights to save remains of Fred Yates estate

The proposal would allow a group of Cornish museums and the Art Fund to oversee the estate of Fred Yates
Photo: Edward Cutler

Art dealer calls on UK government to reverse policy he says will destroy a groundbreaking initiative to safeguard the legacy of Fred Yates and, potentially, other artists who have died without a will.

John Martin, representing Yates in London since the early 1990s, spent years devising an arrangement whereby a Cornwall museum would take over the artist’s estate, including hundreds of paintings, by funding his work through the artist’s resale right income and by protecting the long-term interest in the art and its royalties.

However, the Government Legal Department (GLD), which has the final say because Yates died intestate and without heirs, decided to dispose of the art at auction instead. Now Martin is pleading for him to reconsider.

Born in Manchester in 1922 and self-taught, Yates lived in France but died in 2008 on his way to buy property in Somerset, where he intended to move. The ensuing legal dispute between France and the UK resulted in a loss of millions of pounds in costs, Martin says. The estate included over 400 paintings in France and 200 in the UK, a considerable number of estates and nearly £ 500,000 in the bank.

“However, as is often the case with artists, writers and composers, the greatest value lies in the royalties owed on his estate, which in the case of Fred Yates were estimated at £ 10 million. sterling over the next 70 years, says Martin.

The French authorities have already sold all of Yates’ paintings and properties in France, and have disposed of his letters and personal effects at a local flea market. The French paintings were then sold without reservation and for a fraction of their value at an auction in Paris, with most of the money collected being fees, commissions and taxes.

“The auction featured some of Yates’ most important late paintings and barely achieved one-fifth of their value,” says Martin. “The decision to sell the work in Paris defied all logic; it was a foolish act of lawyers who had no idea of ​​the value of what had been entrusted to them.

Martin was determined to save the remaining paintings, money and property still in his custody in the UK, on ​​which French authorities believed they had a claim. Following the advice of art lawyer Pierre Valentin, he asked Mark Neale of the GLD to claim the estate for the Crown. Neale reviewed the case and agreed the Crown had a legitimate claim because Yates intended to return to the UK for good.

Martin then negotiated his plan with a group of Cornish museums and the Art Fund. They submitted a detailed proposal to the government showing how the estate could generate royalties and merchandising of at least £ 3-4million under such a deal, funding the resources and expertise the museum had. need to manage the collection on display to the public.

“It was a win / win proposition; an initiative that has been strongly followed by the Art Fund and the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, and has won the support of Truro MP Sarah Newton, ”said Martin. “If successful, it could have provided a model for the long-term protection of cultural property, allowing low-income museums to create a large revenue stream while providing significant public benefits.”

However, the GLD rejected the proposal, arguing that it was “not for the purpose of holding assets with the aim of hoping to increase the value of the capital over time”, making the decision to start selling the ‘art instead. But Martin retorts that a well-managed estate can “generate wider artist interest and recognition, which in turn brings increased value and increased royalties.”

So far only a few works have been sold, so there is still time to persuade the GLD to think again. “The likely auction price for a single artist disposal of this magnitude would be around £ 300,000, or around one-fifth of the estate’s value if the work were sold individually. But, even worse, it would have a big ripple effect on the royalty value of a flooded market, ”said Martin. “Royalties are paid for 70 years after the artist’s death and will often be the most valuable part of an estate. Selling the paintings at auction does not relieve the government of its responsibilities.

Another complication arises because the GLD does not own the estate, so if an heir or a will comes along, then they deliver the estate to the beneficiary. If the GLD ceded the estate to the detriment of its value, it would appear that it is not acting in the best interests of the Crown or of the heirs that may eventually emerge.

Neither the GLD nor the Art Fund responded to a request for comment at the time of publication.

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