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Arts & Life

Legal Battle Over UMB Bank’s Handling Of Thomas Hart Benton Estate Turns Contentious

benton.JPG
Courtesy Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum
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'The Sources of Country Music,' Thomas Hart Benton's last painting.

Even in its early stages, the legal fight between the heirs of famed Kansas City artist Thomas Hart Benton and UMB Bank is shaping up as a battle royal.

Benton’s daughter, Jessie Benton, and her three children sued the bank nearly seven weeks ago, alleging it mismanaged the artist’s estate, failed to track and maximize the value of his artwork, lost track of more than 100 pieces of Benton art and impermissibly used his art to promote the bank.

UMB has served as a trustee of the Benton trusts since 1979.

Now, even before UMB has filed its answer to the lawsuit, both sides are fighting over discovery – the process by which the two sides exchange information relevant to the suit.

According to court documents, Jessie Benton, who is 80 years old, has lung cancer and is undergoing chemotherapy. Because of her precarious health, her lawyers reached out to UMB to schedule her deposition in Los Angeles on Jan. 27.

Typically, depositions in a lawsuit don’t take place until much later. But in this case UMB agreed.

Shortly after that, UMB asked the court to cancel the deposition. It claimed Benton had promised to turn over relevant documents and responses in advance of the deposition but failed to fully comply.

“They refused to get us all of the responsive documents,” said Todd Ruskamp, an attorney for UMB. “They did get us some in advance of the deposition. We just didn’t feel like we were in a position to defend the bank and take the deposition.”             

Benton’s side, however, says it has produced nearly 5,200 pages of documents, including emails and text messages, related to the artwork she owns. Meanwhile, they claim UMB was unwilling to comply with their request that all participants in Jessie Benton’s deposition wear masks over their mouths to minimize the risk she’d contract an infection.

Jackson County Probate Judge Mark A. Styles Jr. put an end to the back and forth when he denied UMB’s motion to cancel the deposition. The deposition went ahead as scheduled on Jan. 27, but  without UMB’s lawyers.

“The deposition did go forward and UMB attorneys did not appear, by phone, videoconference or in person,” said J. Kent Emison, an attorney for Benton’s heirs.  

UMB has requested an extension until early March to file its formal reply to the lawsuit. The bank is expected to deny that it mishandled the artist’s estate.

The lawsuit isn’t the first time questions have been raised about UMB’s treatment of Benton’s artworks.

In 2006, UMB’s parent company reached a confidential settlement with a former internal auditor who claimed he was fired after uncovering the sale of three Benton lithographs to a bank director.

The settlement resolved a whistleblower lawsuit filed by Jeff Whitman, who claimed he was pressured by bank management not to disclose the sale of the lithographs to Richard F. Jones, a member at the time of UMB’s board and its trust audit committee.

The lawsuit, which was settled just before the case was set to go to trial, alleged that Jones acquired the lithographs for “significantly less than fair market value.”

That case also was contentious. UMB countered with its own lawsuit against Whitman’s attorney, Scott C. Long, contending Long had defamed the bank when he was quoted in the Kansas City Star saying that Jones had paid “between half and a third of what at least two of the lithographs were worth.”

The bank’s defamation suit was also resolved as part of the settlement with Whitman.

Dan Margolies is a senior reporter and editor at KCUR. You can reach him on Twitter @DanMargolies.

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