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East London’s Vestry House Museum to undergo £4.5million redevelopment
December 17, 2023
A new book explores the life of a pioneering Irish stained-glass artist through his glorious creations
December 17, 2023

A long-running inheritance row over the estate of Franz West, reportedly worth more than $50m, has finally been resolved after the Austrian supreme court last month concluded that all of the Austrian sculptor’s art should be donated to the Franz West Private Foundation, which is represented by Gagosian, Eva Presenhuber and Bärbel Grässlin. The decision overturns an earlier ruling by the court that granted ownership of West’s works to his widow and children.

West’s dying wish was reportedly to separate his art from his other assets, making his widow and children heirs to his estate while transferring his art—and all rights to it—to the foundation, which he set up while in hospital five days before his death in 2012.

Shortly after he died, West’s widow, the artist Tamuna Sirbiladz, sued the foundation in court, claiming that she and her children (not biologically West’s but considered by the artist to be his) owned West’s works. Christoph Kerres, the lawyer who represented the family until 2017, previously told The Art Newspaper that the contracts drawn up while West was in hospital were “rushed” and incomplete. After Sirbiladz’s untimely death in 2016, Benedikt Ledebur, the children’s biological father, continued the dispute on behalf of the family.

Crucially, the latest decision, delivered on 21 November, appoints West’s sister, the late Anne Gutjahr, as the artist’s legal successor—not his children. Gutjahr, who died in March 2021, previously ordered that her brother’s entire artistic estate be transferred to the Franz West Private Foundation.

The decision also signals a victory for Gagosian, who has represented the private foundation since its inception, over his rival David Zwirner, who continues to represent the estate and the Franz West Archive which was established in 1997. Zwirner first spotted West’s talent in the early 1990s, nurturing him until Gagosian poached the artist in 2001—a body blow for Zwirner who told Vanity Fair in 2019 that West’s departure “made clear to me that I had to grow”. A spokesperson for David Zwirner did not respond to a request for comment.

Stefan Ratibor, a director at Gagosian gallery, says Zwirner has done “fantastic work” with West in the past and continues to show the artist, including in Los Angeles earlier this month. With no access to the works in the foundation, the works in that exhibition are likely to have come from Zwirner’s own collection, and those of others.

Ultimately, Ratibor thinks the legal resolution is a “good thing” for the art world. “Franz was so beloved by artists and curators—and now there is clarity at the foundation,” he says. Until now, every single loan and sale of West’s work from the estate required court approval, including Gagosian’s display of West’s drawings at Frieze Masters this year. “Museums also resisted doing shows because they didn’t know who to talk to,” Ratibor adds. A retrospective at the Centre Pompidou in 2018, which travelled to Tate Modern in 2019, was only possible because it was planned and prepared during West’s lifetime.

The foundation is directed by West’s former studio manager, Ines Turian, and has on its board Roland Grassberger, the artist’s nephew. “We are extremely pleased with this outcome,” Grassberger says in a statement. “Finally, we can take action to make Franz West’s work visible again in the public realm, and to advocate for the significance of his artistic legacy. For us, this legal security provides the basis to do so.”

The artist’s nephew notes that “a number of questions remain to be resolved”, adding, “for now we are focusing on devising a forward-looking strategy to uphold West’s legacy, in partnership with museums, galleries and collectors worldwide”.

Those unresolved questions chiefly centre on whether West’s children are still entitled to a share of the artist’s assets, which could include a portion of the value of the works now held by the foundation. In Austria, children are automatically entitled to 50% of a parent’s inherence. However, in his will, West stipulated that if his widow and children challenged his donations to the private foundation, they would lose their entire inheritance. This may yet have to be clarified in court—so the saga rumbles on.

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