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Self-dealing, conflicts of interest alleged in UMB Bank's handling of Thomas Hart Benton estate

 Thomas Hart Benton's "The Sources of Country Music" is at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville.
Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum
"The Sources of Country Music" was Thomas Hart Benton's last painting.

The Missouri artist’s descendants charge that UMB Bank, Benton estate trustees, mismanaged artwork in its care, even selling pieces without permission and below their true value.

In 2002, then-UMB chairman R. Crosby Kemper Jr. showed Kansas City businesswoman Shirley Helzberg around a vault that contained artist Thoma Hart Benton’s vast art collection. Helzberg, whose husband Barnett Helzberg ran the Helzberg Diamonds enterprise and was a UMB director at the time, chose eight pieces of Benton’s collection she wished to purchase.

She later bought the pieces for a price that represented the low end of a range of valuations for the artwork. Upon completing the deal, she sent a note that said, “Please express to Crosby my delight.”

That’s all according to lawyers for Benton’s daughter, Jessie Benton, and other Benton descendants, who said Monday that those transactions represented just a few examples of the UMB’s extensive mismanagement of the Benton estate since 1975.

Opening arguments were held on Monday in Jackson County Probate Court in a lawsuit brought by Benton’s heirs against UMB Bank, who the artist’s descendants sued in 2019 accusing the bank of mismanaging the Benton estate.

The Helzberg transaction came several years after a UMB internal audit turned up evidence the bank had sold Benton artwork without required approvals, did not obtain sales contracts and generally kept poor recordkeeping of the artist’s estate.

The 1999 audit called UMB’s management of Benton’s estate “unacceptable.”

Despite those warnings, UMB sold three lithographs to a member of the bank’s board of directors the following year, which was described as a violation of the bank’s policies. (Two of the internal auditors who offered a dim view of UMB’s oversight of the Benton trust were later fired, according to Benton family attorney Kent Emison. In 2006, UMB reached a confidential settlement with one of the auditors).

In court Monday, Benton attorney Emison said UMB routinely sold Benton’s creations without independent appraisals to determine their true value, sold artwork to UMB insiders and customers ranging from the Kansas City Chiefs to former U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill and handled sales of Benton’s work with art brokers and dealers who had conflicts of interest.

What’s more, UMB never told the Benton family about these insider transactions or audits that raised questions about the oversight of the Benton trust, Emison said.

“UMB made choices that damaged the legacy of the Benton family and put their interests over the beneficiaries of this trust,” Emison said.

Benton’s family members also claim that UMB neglected to monetize Benton’s intellectual property by failing to properly copyright and license his artwork, further diminishing the trust.

Bob Langdon, another attorney representing the Benton family, said the trust could have realized $315 million had the artist's intellectual property been handled properly.

Benton’s heirs plan to ask for at least $65 million — perhaps closer to $85 million, Emison said Monday — in appreciated damages, plus more in punitive and other damages.

Lawyers for UMB, which is represented by the Shook, Hardy & Bacon law firm, argue that UMB acted reasonably in looking after Benton’s estate.

Opening arguments for the plaintiffs lasted for several hours on Monday and time ran out for UMB to begin presenting its case. As a result, this article describes allegations raised only by the Benton family.

The Thomas Hart Benton Home and Studio is a Missouri State Historic Site, a hidden gem tucked back in Kansas City's historic Roanoke neighborhood.
Julie Denesha
KCUR 89.3
The Thomas Hart Benton Home and Studio is a Missouri State Historic Site in Kansas City's historic Roanoke neighborhood.

‘You want to have a bidding war’

Benton, born in 1889 in Neosho, became one of the most famous artists from Missouri. His vivid painted portrayals of life in the Midwest adorned the walls of museums and government buildings across the United States. His mural, A Social History of Missouri, is on display at the Missouri capitol building in Jefferson City.

Benton’s will named City National Bank and Trust Company of Kansas City — now UMB Bank — the co-trustee of his trust, along with his attorney Lyman Field and his wife, Rita Benton, who died less than three months after her husband. UMB assumed that role in 1979.

UMB, an venerable institution that traces its roots in Missouri back to 1913 when W.T. Kemper chartered the bank, held itself out as a proper authority to manage trusts.

“The evidence in this case will be that UMB lacked the requisite expertise to properly manage and administer the Benton trust,” Emison said in court on Monday.

Emison said an art expert advised UMB on the proper handling of Benton’s estate, which would include a detailed inventory, period appraisals and a complete marketing plan outlining how and when to sell portions of the collection.

But instead, according to Emison, Crosby Kemper Jr. took “absolute control” of the Benton trust and treated it as his own art collection while disregarding the advice he received. An internal UMB memo in 1999 referenced during opening arguments said any proposed sale of Benton artwork required Kemper’s approval.

In one example highlighted during Monday’s proceedings, Kemper in 1986 caused a Benton painting called Persephone to sell at a private sale without an independent appraisal to avoid a potential bidding war between interested buyers from California and Switzerland who were willing to buy the painting for more than $2.5 million.

The painting, according to the Benton family, hangs in a wing of Kansas City’s Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art named after the Kemper family.

The result was the painting selling for less than it could have on the open market.

“You want to have a bidding war,” Landgon said.

Thomas Hart Benton painted <em>Self-Portrait with Rita</em> circa 1924.
Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery

Thomas Hart Benton painted "Self-Portrait with Rita" circa 1924.

Another Benton painting, Self Portrait with Rita, was allegedly given away from the trust as an unauthorized gift.

“Why would Mr. Kemper have this absolute control over the Benton trust?” Emison said. “That is a question that will be addressed during this trial.”

A hard fight ahead

The trial is scheduled to continue for approximately a month. It figures to be a hard–fought case between the family of a prominent artist and a financial institution keen on preserving its reputation in Kansas City and St. Louis.

Interactions between attorneys for both sides have been strained throughout the proceedings. UMB’s lawyers have claimed before the trial that Benton’s lawyers have tried to embarrass the bank by sharing details of UMB’s alleged mishandling of the Benton estate.

UMB bridled at an initial allegation made in court documents by the Benton’s family’s lawyers that said UMB gifted Benton’s Desert Artist to the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art without permission. In fact, the painting was gifted in Benton’s will to the Nelson-Atkins museum, later sold to another gallery and ultimately donated to the Kemper museum.

UMB sued Benton’s heirs in federal court, describing some of them as having a “long, well-documented history of operating as a criminal enterprise.” But instead of using guns, the lawsuit claimed, some of Benton’s descendants had hatched a scheme to defraud UMB out of $300 million because they needed the money.

A federal judge dismissed that lawsuit, describing it as a “malicious prosecution” case.

The trial resumes Tuesday with UMB’s opening arguments.

The Midwest Newsroom is an investigative journalism collaboration including St. Louis Public RadioKCURIowa Public RadioNebraska Public Media and NPR.

Steve Vockrodt is the former investigative editor for the Midwest Newsroom.
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