Julie Carlson Wildfeuer
The author of numerous art books and museum exhibition catalogs, ARTFIXdaily publisher Julie Carlson Wildfeuer has also written for regional magazines, Forbes.com, and Antiques & Fine Art magazine, where she served as VP and founding managing editor.
Art world news, exhibition reviews, and notes on collecting.
Brooke Astor's Favorite Painting at Heart of Trial
Childe Hassam, Up the Avenue from Thirty-fourth Street
Brooke Astor at home
New York Magazine
UPDATE (Oct. 8, 2009) - Jurors convicted Anthony Marshall, Brooke Astor's son, of 14 criminal counts, including fraud and grand larceny. He was found not guilty on charges of larceny, relating to the sale of his mother's Childe Hassam painting, and falsifying business records. The 85-year-old Marshall faces up to 25 years in prison. His sentencing is set for Dec. 8. Read more on ABC News.
A quintessential American painting, a coastal Maine summer house, one $920,000 yacht, and $60 million earmarked for charity: all enviable assets. And the source of controversy in the much-publicized Astor trial that has languished since April in New York courts.
Socialite Brooke Astor's 85-year-old son, Anthony D. Marshall, is on the defensive as a jury decides whether he enriched himself at his mother's expense. Mrs. Astor, who died in 2007 at 105, suffered from Alzheimer's disease in her later years. While she succumbed to confusion, her son is accused of tricking her into thinking she was poor, selling her beloved art, and dipping heartily into her vast fortune. Prosecutors have charged him with first-degree grand larceny.
A great American impressionist painting is at the heart of this sad saga. On June 9, Astor's butler testified that in 2002 Tony Marshall arranged for the sale of Astor's cherished painting "Flags, Fifth Avenue" (also known as "Up the Avenue from Thirty-fourth Street).
The work by Childe Hassam (1859-1935) hung in Mrs. Astor's Park Avenue home since the 1970s. Marshall told his mother she needed the money. (Her annual income at the time was about $5 to $6 million.) The proceeds of the sale were $10 million. Marshall gave himself a $2 million commission, and the buyer, Santa Fe-based Gerald Peters Gallery, reportedly flipped the painting to the tune of $20 million. Astor then asked her son, "Now can I buy dresses?"
The 1917 Hassam oil always appealed to Astor for its patriotic fervor: red, white, and blue American, French, and British flags drape a New York street scene at the onset of World War I, according to biographer Meryl Gordon. Ever proud of her country and city, as well as the accomplishments of her own Marine brigadier general father, Astor placed the prized painting above her red-lacquered library's marble mantel.
Soon after she purchased the picture from Pace Wildenstein Gallery in 1970, for $172,010, Astor told officials of the Metropolitan Museum of Art that the painting would be bequethed to that institution. Former Met museum director Philippe de Montebello has stated that Astor repeatedly told him, "that's for you someday" whenever they viewed the "Flags" picture.
When the painting quietly left Astor's home and the bequest disappeared from her will, Astor's friends began to think something was amiss. By 2006, after Astor's grandson Philip Marshall brought up charges against his father for mistreating the family matriarch, it was revealed that Tony Marshall also mishandled his mother's taxes on the painting. The IRS stepped in. He was ordered to pay penalties and interest.
Vanity Fair speculated in late 2008 that Mrs. Astor's beloved Hassam might be worth $30 to $40 million. (Other reports pin the value around $10 million.) But what isn't known is if she missed seeing the familiar image in her twilight years. And, of course, if she would have stuck with her intent of giving it to the Met had her muddled mind not been influenced.
Marshall and his lawyers are also under scrutiny for forcing Mrs. Astor to change her will, reassigning a pile of cash, pricey properties, stocks, and foundation funds, after her Alzheimer's set in. In her last years, when Mrs. Astor rarely recognized friends and family, a "First and Final Codicil" and then a second and third codicil were drafted amending her will to transfer $60 million of her estate to Tony Marshall. The charitable Vincent Astor Foundation that she inherited from her husband became the Anthony Marshall Fund. Her son swiftly put her Park Avenue pad on the market for $46 million after her death (it's now reduced to $29 million).
Trial publicity has made much ado about how Marshall's third wife, Charlene, would stand to inherit quite a bit of money if her husband and his lawyers' schemes aren't undone. Brooke Astor's friends say she never liked Charlene and that she had purposely not left the bulk of her assets to her son and daughter-in-law.
The fight is destined to continue in its disturbing course. Lawyers from the institutions that Brooke Astor originally chose to support with her estate, including the New York Public Library, the Metropolitan Museum, the Morgan Library, and Rockefeller University, will contest her son's actions.
"I painted the flag series after we went into the war. There was that Preparedness Day, and I looked up the avenue and saw these wonderful flags waving, and I painted the series of flag pictures after that." - Childe Hassam