Missing Chinese masterpieces ‘worth at least US$60m’ have family of art collector C.C. Wang at war

Priceless classical Chinese artwork was reduced to ‘piece of cake’ for nephew in long-running family battle, US court papers allege

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 27 February, 2018, 2:25am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 27 February, 2018, 10:22pm

With “stolen” artefacts, family feuds and claims of underhanded dealing, the battle for control over C.C. Wang's multimillion-dollar Chinese painting collection has the epic sweep and raw human drama of an Amy Tan novel. And despite a recent court ruling, the saga shows no ends of stopping.

Chi-Chuan Wang, better known as C.C. Wang, spent decades acquiring paintings now worth millions of dollars, some from the dispersed collection of the Imperial court of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911). 

Many of the works now hang in a gallery named after him in New York’s prestigious Metropolitan Museum of Art, known locally as “The Met”. 

C.C.’s collection included paintings from the 10th through the 14th centuries, including monumental landscapes from the Northern Song dynasty (960-1127), figure-based narratives and elegant album-size paintings commissioned by the court of the Southern Song dynasty (1127 to 1279). 

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But dozens of C.C.’s works went missing. The collector died while the pieces were snatched out of vaults in Shanghai and New York, from under his death bed, and from his own hands, according to court documents. 

The whereabouts of these centuries-old calligraphy scrolls and landscape paintings have come under scrutiny as part of legal action that recently handed control of Wang’s estate from the late collector’s son Shou-kung Wang and nephew Andrew Wang to C.C.’s daughter, Yien-koo King. 

King has been trying for 15 years to wrest control of her father’s estate away from Andrew in a bitterly fought family feud.

The strained family relations started when King was taken to the US by C.C. in the tumult of the communist takeover of China in 1949. Her brother, Shou-kung, was left in the mainland to care for elderly relatives and toil in a factory until 1979. 

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Court documents prepared by King’s lawyer describe the “deep distain” that Shou-kung developed for King over her status as C.C.’s “favoured child”. 

The only point on which King, Shou-kung and Andrew are of the same mind is the extent of C.C.’s devotion to the art he collected. C.C. referred to his collection as “his babies”, according to one appellate brief. 

Experts from The Met attest to the role C.C. played in the art world. 

“Mr. Wang was one of the leading 20th century connoisseurs of classical Chinese painting,” Mike Hearn, chairman of the Met’s department of Asian art, said in an exchange with the South China Morning Post. 

“The acquisition of masterworks from the Wang collection enables the Met's holdings to exemplify the highest ideals of traditional literati taste and connoisseurship.” 

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“Over more than two decades of purchases and donations, the Met has been able to acquire some 60 works that once belonged to Mr. Wang. That gives the Met's holdings a very distinctive character.” 

Last week, King gained the upper hand in the sibling rivalry. 

She was handed a pivotal victory by a Manhattan Surrogate’s Court, which gave her control over the assets of her father’s estate. 

She lost that power soon after C.C.’s death in July 2003, when Shou-kung and his son Andrew produced a will that the New York court invalidated in June. 

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In the June proceeding, the jury was swayed by King’s argument that the will procured by Shou-kung and Andrew was signed by an incapacitated, 97-year-old C.C., a few months before he died. 

Lawyers for each side portray C.C.’s final wishes very differently. 

Shou-kung and Andrew contend that C.C. disinherited King because he was “angered and upset by his daughter and son-in-law depriving him of access to his accounts and collection”. 

King argued that C.C. gave her and her husband, Kenneth King, full control over the collection’s management after some works went missing in the 1990s. She alleged that C.C. held Shou-kung responsible for the missing items. 

King’s legal victory last week may pave the way for her to get the Manhattan surrogate’s court to affirm C.C.’s earlier will, which puts his estate entirely under her control. 

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The court’s latest decision also could smooth the way for her to pursue Shou-kang and Andrew to account for upwards of US$60 million worth of her father’s collection. She is chasing after that claim in a lawsuit playing out in US federal court. 

King “got a unanimous jury to agree with her on all counts: fraud, undue influence and the lack of capacity issue,” her lawyer, Timothy Savitsky, with the firm of Sam P. Israel PC, told the Post in an interview. 

“It's a big turning point. She has the resolve to continue fighting as long as she can. As long as is necessary.” 

Shou-kung and Andrew are not backing down. 

Their defence team from the New York law firm of Kamerman, Uncyk, Soniker & Klein PC said they plan to fight King’s motion to have the courts recognise C.C.’s earlier will as the art collector’s final wishes and appeal last week’s decision. 

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The court erred, the Kamerman team contended, in failing to consider real estate deals and other transactions C.C. and King concluded jointly around the same time that the contested will was signed. 

The team also said the court was wrong to let the jury hear written testimony from a doctor who relied extensively “on incompetent information from [King]” and statements allegedly made by Andrew when he and King were trying to settle their cases out of court. 

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It was during one of these confrontations that, according to a complaint filed by Savitsky in 2016, Andrew referred to C.C.’s assets “as a ‘piece of cake’ that he wanted to ‘enjoy’”. 

That document goes on to portray Shou-kung’s and Andrew’s strict adherence to traditional Chinese cultural norms as a motivating factor for their efforts to dispossess King. 

Shou-kung and Andrew “have been transparent in their personal animus towards Yien-Koo and their express adherence to traditional cultural mandates”, the complaint said. 

“Even before C.C. Wang died, the Wang defendants were openly insistent that his male progeny could be the only successors to the family treasure. Still, their efforts to achieve this result remained mostly clandestine.” 

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C.C.’s intentions for the division of his assets was explained differently in Shou-kung and Andrew’s appeal motion from last week. 

C.C., the appeal document explained, “divided his estate into five portions, allocating one portion to each of his three daughters (or their issue) and a double portion to S.K., his only son”. 

“C.C. left S.K. a double portion both because it was traditional in Chinese culture, and because S.K. suffered after being left in China until 1979,” the document said. 

Decisions by the New York courts to invalidate the 2003 will and hand control of C.C. Wang’s estate assets to King, should strengthen her efforts to charge Shou-kung and Andrew with racketeering in federal court, according to Savitsky.

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King alleges that Andrew sold works from C.C.’s estate to himself via “straw men” buyers at far below market value and then re-sold the pieces at prices that were thousands of times higher, pocketing the difference. 

In one example cited in the 2016 complaint filed by Savitsky, the plaintiffs discovered that one painting, titled Three Gentlemen After Drinking, was valued by a Beijing auction house at around US$1.3 million (HK$10.2 million). 

That assessment was 80 times higher than what was paid to the C.C. Wang estate. The complaint enumerates dozens of other such transactions. 

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Akiva Cohen, a member of the Kamerman legal team, pointed out that all sales by Andrew and Shou-kung were carried out under the supervision of a court-appointed public administrator. 

“Every sale of a piece of art that went through from the estate had the public administrator validating it and making sure that it got a fair price,” Cohen told the Post. 

Savitsky said the complicated straw-man arrangements Andrew used were designed to mask below-market proceeds returned to the estate, manoeuvres that prompted King to keep fighting to win back control. 

And bitterness between the two siblings is set to continue as the various legal actions proceed through US courts. 

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“What [King] wanted to do was just put it behind her,” Savitsky said. “Nothing is worth the amount of stress that comes along with this type of litigation involving your own family. 

“What she's saying and has happened is that Andrew just took the work and put them in his own pocket. 

“That's what has just caused this to become a never-ending fight.”