CAPTIVA ISLAND, Fla. — Before he died in 2008, pop artist Robert Rauschenberg asked three of his closest friends to oversee his $600 million estate.
In a lawsuit that has dragged on for years with Rauschenberg's family and charitable foundation, those friends are asking for $60 million in fees as compensation for administering the trust. The case will likely go to trial this year; a hearing will be held in Lee County court on March 31.
At issue is whether the $60 million in fees requested by the trustees is the "reasonable fee" allowed by Florida law.
"Bob Rauschenberg believed the trustees he chose were trustworthy friends who understood that the Rauschenberg Foundation was to be Bob's crowning achievement and legacy," said Robert Goldman, the attorney for the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation. "The trustees' demand for $60 million that would otherwise belong to the foundation is a monstrous affront to Bob's testamentary intent and is not a reasonable trustees' fee under Florida law."
Rauschenberg spent the last days of his life at his 35-acre waterfront compound on Captiva, an exclusive and tropical Gulf Coast island.
He died on May 12, 2008, of heart and lung failure, at the age of 82.
The artist, who also had a home in New York City, was famous for his use of odd and everyday articles in his paintings, and his unusual style earned him fame as a pioneer in pop art, along with Jasper Johns, James Rosenquist and Andy Warhol. In the 1950s, Rauschenberg created his "White Paintings," modular panels which appear at first to be a blank white canvas. He is also known for his "Combines," which are free-standing, mixed media works.
In the 1960s, he began incorporating photographs into his art — memorably, pictures of John F. Kennedy. He won a 1984 Grammy Award for best album package for the Talking Heads album "Speaking in Tongues."
After his death, Rauschenberg's works soared in value. In 2010, one of his "Combine" works — which had been owned by the late author Michael Crichton — sold for $11 million at a Christie's auction in New York.
Rauschenberg was also an avid philanthropist, and while alive he gave money to children's charities and environmental causes. In his will, he stated that all of his assets should go into a trust — which was overseen by his friends, the three trustees — and that the primary beneficiary of the trust was the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, which would manage the art and continue to support charities and emerging artists.
"Based upon the increased value of the Rauschenberg art, the Trustees estimate the current value of the Trust assets to exceed $2 billion," wrote the attorney for the three trustees in a court document dated March 14, 2012.
The trustees are Darryl Pottorf, Rauschenberg's assistant and companion; Bill Goldston, who was partners with Rauschenberg in an art printing company; and Bennet Grutman, the artist's accountant.
Attorneys for the trustees couldn't be reached for comment. But court documents show that the trustees believe they are deserving of the fees because "they have provided extraordinary services that have greatly enhanced the value of the Trust assets," including reintroducing Rauschenberg's artwork to the market in a "prudent manner and under a comprehensive plan, resulting in an increase in value and public appreciation."
The trustees also said they had to deal with copyright issues and analyze complex federal and state tax laws.
The Robert Rauschenberg Foundation suggested the trustees be paid hourly, and two experts hired by the three men said that trust administration fees based on hourly wages weren't reasonable.
"While I have yet to form an opinion about the reasonable fees for administration of the trust," wrote James Myers, a Palm Beach attorney who provided his expert opinion in a court document for the case, "I can state unequivocally that a trustee's fee based on an hourly rate is not reasonable and is not fair to the trustees and would not be customary under these circumstances."
One expert hired by the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation said the trustees' fee request is "unconscionable."
Laird Lile, a Naples, Fla.-based probate and trust attorney who is also on the Board of Governors for the Florida Bar, said in a May 16, 2013, court document that his analysis showed that the three trustees have paid themselves $5.7 million in fees from the trust — a sum Lile called "grossly disproportionate" to the services required of the trustees.
There was no fee agreement between the trustees and the foundation. And the trustees did not keep records of their time served, Lile said, adding that there was little in the way of annual accounting to the foundation.
"The net result of this improper administration is to allow the unbridled expenditure of trust funds with no checks or balances among the three trustees," Lile said.
Rauschenberg's son, Christopher Rauschenberg — who is a Seattle-based photographer — said in a statement that his father wanted to help artists and others after he died. The younger Rauschenberg, who is chairman of the board of trustees for the foundation, said that the organization has given grants to cultural institutions, supported artists impacted by Superstorm Sandy and donated more than 100 works of art to museums across the United States. In the fall of 2013, the foundation supported a citywide dialogue on climate change in New York.
"Our goal in this matter is to ensure that my dad's legacy is protected and that the foundation he created can succeed and make an impact," Christopher Rauschenberg wrote in the statement. "We do not think his philanthropic intentions should be eroded through the payment of tens of millions of dollars to the people he entrusted to implement his wishes. We are confident that the Florida court will make a ruling that is fair and consistent with my dad's intent to promote his foundation and better the world."
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