Rauschenberg Foundation fights ‘unconscionable’ fees for late artist’s trustees

 
 
 Robert Rauschenberg sits in front of one of his works at a  2005 show opening at  the Miami Art Museum.
Robert Rauschenberg sits in front of one of his works at a 2005 show opening at the Miami Art Museum.
Miami Herald File

The New York Times

Before he died in 2008, brashly inventive artist Robert Rauschenberg appointed three of his dearest friends and longtime business associates as trustees to administer his $600 million-plus estate and protect the charitable foundation he had created in his name.

But now, that foundation and the three men entrusted with its welfare are engaged in a court battle in Florida over the trustees’ claim that they are entitled to at least $60 million in fees — a sum that an expert hired by the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation maintains is “unconscionable,” amounting to a $40,000-per-hour wage. On Wednesday, the foundation took the feud to a court in New York, where one trustee, Rauschenberg’s companion and assistant Darryl Pottorf, is seeking an additional payment for handling Manhattan property of the artist.

“You scratch your head and say, ‘What are they thinking?’ ” said Christopher Rauschenberg, the artist’s son and the foundation’s president, who also considers the three trustees friends.

Primarily concerned with having the foundation get on with its work, Rauschenberg said, “If a judge says $60 million is fair, we’ll put it behind us and continue with the charitable stuff.”

One trustee, Bill Goldston, met Rauschenberg in 1969, and the two were partners in a fine-art-print publishing company. Another, Bennet Grutman, was the artist’s accountant since 1989.

Pottorf, an artist, worked with Rauschenberg for 30 years and lived down the street from him on Captiva Island, off Florida’s west coast. The two made art and traveled together, Pottorf explained in a 2011 deposition, saying, “It was a wonderful life.” After the aging Rauschenberg was partly paralyzed from a stroke, Pottorf said, he often helped a nurse put him to bed.

The trustees concede that they did not keep records of their work and that they did not try to reconstruct or account for the hours they say they put in. Nonetheless, they have stated in court papers in Florida that they deserve $60 million or more.

Ted Edwards, a lawyer for the trustees in Florida, declined to comment.

On Wednesday, the foundation filed papers in New York Surrogate’s Court relating to Pottorf’s work on the New York portion of the estate. A commission of $284,000 was approved by the Surrogate’s Court in April.

Rules for how executors and trustees should be paid vary from state to state. In New York, for example, executors typically receive a percentage of certain kinds of assets in an estate. Florida law says trustees are entitled to a “reasonable fee.”

Laird A. Lile, a Naples attorney hired as an expert hired by the foundation who is also a governor of the Florida Bar, filed an affidavit saying a reasonable fee would be about $250 an hour. According to his calculations, the three Rauschenberg trustees were seeking $40,000 an hour for their services, an amount he labeled “unconscionable.”

To date, Pottorf, Goldston and Grutman have paid themselves a total of $5.7 million of the $60 million in trustee fees that they say they are due — a sum that was not approved by any court and which Lile said he considered “grossly excessive.” In addition, they received $3.9 million for work that they continued to do as consultants and employees of Rauschenberg’s business.

When Rauschenberg was alive, Pottorf received $120,000 a year net in salary, he said in his deposition. He was also named in the will, inheriting Rauschenberg’s Gulf House in Captiva, one of many properties he owned on the island. According to a federal estate tax return filed in 2009, the house was worth $3.6 million.

Estimating the value of works by even well-established artists is notoriously difficult given how fickle the art market can be. In the 2009 federal tax return prepared by Grutman’s firm, the value of Rauschenberg’s estate was listed as nearly $606 million. When the trust turned over the majority of the assets to the foundation three years later, in May 2012, it listed the estate’s value as more than $2.3 billion.

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