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UMB Bank says in court Thomas Hart Benton's descendants fabricated claims of estate mismanagement

The Thomas Hart Benton mural "Independence and the Opening of the West" remains in its original location where the entrace to the museum used to be.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
The Thomas Hart Benton mural "Independence and the Opening of the West" is at the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum in Independence, Missouri.

UMB lawyers said the allegations lack context and the bank used an appropriate standard of care in its role as a trustee of Benton’s vast art holdings.

A lawyer for UMB Bank said this week that some of the more salacious allegations made against his client by heirs of Missouri artist Thomas Hart Benton are fabricated.

Other claims made by the Benton’s family about how UMB Bank managed the late artist’s estate have been stripped of context and factual underpinnings, Todd Ruskamp said.

Ruskamp, a Shook, Hardy & Bacon lawyer representing the venerable Kansas City bank at a trial that started this week, said in opening arguments that the case put on by Benton’s lawyers represents more of a scripted presentation than one based on fact.

Benton’s daughter, Jessie Benton, and her three children sued in 2019, claiming that the bank mishandled the estate of the famous 20th century painter from Missouri, who left his vast art collection in care of the bank.

The Benton family has claimed UMB sold artwork to insiders at discounts, sold other pieces without approval, did a poor job of appraising the value of the collection and failed to monetize Benton’s estate through copyrights and licenses.

In all, the plaintiff’s case portrays UMB as having treated Benton’s art collection as its own, particularly its former chairman and prominent Kansas City civic leader, the late Crosby Kemper, Jr. The family seeks at least $85 million in damages.

‘Allegations are fabrications’

The trial, expected to last a month, pits the family of perhaps Missouri’s most renowned artist against a financial institution with deep roots in Missouri and whose founding and controlling family have influence in Kansas City civic affairs. It also gives a glimpse into the world of how high-priced art is managed and sold.

Ruskamp said this week that the family’s claims don’t hold up to scrutiny and that the bank used an appropriate standard of care in dealing with Benton’s estate.

Allegations falling into the fabrications category, according to Ruskamp, were claims early on that UMB had lost track of more than 100 pieces of Benton artwork.

Another false claim, Ruskamp said, was that a prominent Benton painting, Desert Artist, was steered by Kemper to the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art without permission. Benton’s lawyers backed away from that allegation after it was shown that Desert Artist was ultimately donated to the Kemper museum.

“These statements are untrue,” Ruskamp told Jackson County probate judge Mark Styles. “This comment about Desert Artist is not true, comments about 100 lost pieces of artwork, they’re not true.”

He added later, “Those allegations are fabrications, your honor.”

Ruskamp said the defendants started fielding inquiries about the Benton case, first from a Wall Street Journal reporter, before the lawsuit was even filed. Ruskamp portrayed the Benton family as eager to attract press attention for their case.

Ruskamp argued that other allegations made by Benton’s lawyers lack fuller context. Examples include insistence by Kent Emison, one of the lawyers for the Benton family, that Kemper exercised absolute control over the Benton estate.

Ruskamp said that Lyman Field, a famous Kansas City attorney and confidant to Benton, served as co-trustee to the Benton estate and was apprised of its activities.

Benton appointed Field because the late artist did not think his children were up to the task, according to a letter by Benton that Ruskamp presented during his opening argument.

“If my two children, a daughter 30 yrs old and a son 40 yrs old, a married singer, and a flute player and writer unmarried, had shown in their lives any kind of business ability I would have simply divided all my properties between them and my wife and let it go at that,” the letter said. “But this is impossible.”

Benton died in 1975; his wife, Rita Benton, died the same year, less than three months later.

A painting by Thomas Hart Benton depicts a self portrait of the artist in his studio, paint brush in hand, next to paint and a canvas.
"Self-Portrait" by Thomas Hart Benton
Photo by Lea Christiano - Smithsonian American Art Museum
Thomas Hart Benton, who worked out of his home studio in Kansas City's Roanoke neighborhood, was a prolific painter and one of the country's most famous muralists.

Internal audits

Ruskamp also disputed the notion that the bank gave insiders and close associates sweetheart deals.

Benton’s family claimed that UMB was wrong to sell eight pieces of artwork to Kansas City philanthropist Shirley Helzberg in 2002 while her husband, Barnett Helzberg, served on UMB’s board.

Ruskamp said the arrangement with Helzberg was a direct sale, meaning no commissions were paid, and that the final price was within a range of valuations for the small collection she bought. He also said that Barnett Helzberg was in the process of rolling off UMB’s board and had not been active in its affairs when her wife purchased the Benton pieces.

Benton’s family also took issue with the sale of three lithographs to Richard Jones, also a board member. Ruskamp said UMB rescinded the deal.

UMB pulled back the sale to Jones after an internal audit spotted the transaction and criticized it. Benton’s lawyers pointed extensively to two internal audits that criticized UMB’s handling of the Benton estate.

Ruskamp said the audits showed how UMB examined its own practices.

“It was UMB people working on audits. It was a process. The bank had to look at itself and how it was performing,” Ruskamp said. “And it worked.”

One of the internal auditors who criticized the bank, Jeff Whitman, testified on Thursday that after the audit, UMB pressured him to quit, then demoted him to a job he described as a position for beginners and ultimately fired him.

“Honestly my personal belief is they wanted me to quit and I stayed on,” Whitman said. “This audit cost me my job and my career with UMB.”

Whitman later sued UMB for wrongful termination before settling the case.

During cross examination, Ruskamp pointed out that Whitman’s bosses had pointed out criticisms of his work performance that did not touch upon the Benton audits.

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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