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Antiques No-Show: Valuables in Dispute

In will, trust and estate disputes, the most valuable assets involved are usually property, land and money.  However, there can often be a much more emotive element to these disputes, centring around the deceased person’s belongings.

Disputes in relation to personal belongings can be seen throughout the last 200 years or so of legal history, whether in family proceedings or in estate disputes; several cases in the 1800s related to ownership of horses (two colts in Iron v Smallpiece [1819]), whereas the 20th century naturally saw a shift with litigation involving cars (Hargreave v Newton [1971]) and yachts (Rowe v Prance [1999]) as personal ownership of vehicles and boats increased.

More recently, a valuable collection of over 500 items of pottery from the transitional period between the Ming and Qing dynasties, said to be of “outstanding importance to the study and appreciation of Chinese art and culture in the 17th century”, was the subject matter of the 2016 case of Butler v Butler in which the High Court was asked by a group of siblings to determine what should become of the collection. 

Such disputes are not confined to English shores; as of 2023 the family of Franklin D Roosevelt’s press secretary Stephen T Early were in dispute as to ownership of illustrations by Norman Rockwell given to Early in 1943 after the drawings were spotted on a wall at the White House in the background of a 2017 televised interview with Donald Trump, although the White House is not accused of any wrongdoing.

Sometimes items which are the focus of a dispute may hold a greater sentimental value rather than monetary.  Having specialised in contentious probate disputes for many years, I have been involved in litigation on several occasions where one party has become entrenched in the need to receive, value or simply locate an item with a relatively modest value.  Examples of disputed personal items in court proceedings I have been involved in have included clocks, childhood pottery, car parts and even a pair of whale’s teeth. Of course, these items have not been the only matter involved in the litigation as that would be considered disproportionate, but those items have often been the most emotive element of the dispute.

On the other side of the coin, I have represented a party in a dispute regarding a 19th century work by an Associate of the Royal Academy which had been undervalued during the administration of the estate, but later sold at Christies for a sum much more fitting of a work of its provenance.

As a lawyer, dealing with disputes relating to the deceased’s personal belongings can be both interesting and challenging:

  • Different individuals might describe the same item using different words; a lay person’s description could be completely different to the words used in an auction listing.
  • A family member might hold information or documentation which improves both the provenance and value of an antique.
  • The history of an item, or the materials from which it has been made, may cause it to be difficult or even illegal to sell.
  • An item which should pass to a specific individual might be in a different country, creating the additional challenges which come with repatriating it.
  • The sentimental significance of an item to a family member may have been underestimated by the executors, causing tensions and disagreements to spread into other elements of the administration of the estate.
  • Simply locating an item may be impossible, for instance if the deceased person moved house, made gifts or “decluttered” their home before their death, causing evidential issues if a party is asked to prove that an item existed, what it was worth and what happened to it. 

Families faced with issues relating to a deceased relative’s personal items can often find that the dispute extends to other areas, such as lifetime gifts, property and land.

The key take away is that whether a dispute involves property belonging to a living person or someone who has already died, it is crucial to obtain early specialist legal advice to assess whether the dispute can be resolved by alternative dispute resolution such as negotiations or mediation.

In some cases, agreement cannot be reached which leaves little alternative but to involve the Court, particularly for high value items or for disputes which involve more complex legal issues amongst family members, so having the appropriate legal strategy early on can go some way to making a difficult time more straightforward for those affected.