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High Court Tackles Family Dispute Over Sculptor’s Prodigious Artistic Legacy

Creative people often trade through corporate vehicles for tax and other reasons, but that can beg the question whether their works remain their personal property or are owned by the relevant companies. The High Court tackled just that issue in a case concerning the prodigious artistic legacy of a leading sculptor.

By his will, the artist made provision for his widow and four children, bequeathing his personal possessions to the latter. The document, however, made no mention of what was to happen to his collection of his own works. The resulting uncertainty as to the ownership of those works had created a rift in his family and, 15 years after his death, it had still proved impossible to wind up his estate.

Thirty years before his death, aged 88, he had established a company through which his works were marketed. His will conferred on his widow a controlling 52 per cent stake in the company and minority shareholdings on his children. It was claimed by one of his daughters that his physical collection, and associated copyrights, formed part of his estate and should be held on trust for the children’s benefit.

In ruling on the matter, the Court found that, as from the date of its incorporation, the artist had been an employee of the company and thereafter produced all his works in that capacity. Both the tangible works and copyrights produced after that date were thus owned by the company. The Court also ruled that the company had acquired title to all the works that pre-dated incorporation and that the artist had intended to assign all copyrights in those works to the company.

The Court observed that a ruling in favour of the daughter might have had some advantageous financial consequences for her. However, such a decision would inevitably have resulted in very substantial Inheritance Tax liabilities which, in turn, could have led to the dispersal of a collection that the artist had always wished to be kept intact.

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