Illinois Appellate Court Affirms Trial Court’s Decision on Claim of Ownership of Four Works of Art

Daniel and Rachel Brenner purchased four works of art from Evelyn Statsinger in the 1950s and 1960s. The artworks were displayed in the Brenner home continuously through the time of Daniel’s death in 1977 and Rachel’s death in 1990. The Brenner children, Ariel and Jonathan Brenner, inherited the artwork.

When Jonathan died in 2010, he died without a will. His widow, Terry Brenner, was his sole heir.

The paintings were given back to Evelyn Statsinger in 1996. The transfer took place with Jonathan, Terry, their daughter, Statsinger and Statsinger’s husband being present.

Ariel was not present and at no point agreed to gift her interest in the artwork to Statsinger. Terry believed the art was being loaned to Statsinger to aid with a retrospective of her career.  For 20 years, the art was kept by Statsinger until she died in February 2016.

In 2015, however, the works were transferred to Richard Gray Gallery, which agreed to mount a retrospective of Statsinger’s work. Statsinger co-signed a number of her works to the gallery, signing a document indicating that she owned all of the artwork.

According to the summary of the appellate decision, all the artwork was displayed in the gallery as being “for sale.” When Ariel attended the show, she was upset to discover the painting, in which she had an ownership interest, was listed for sale. Ariel and Terry filed suit seeking a declaration (declaratory judgment) that they were the proper owners and requesting the paintings be returned.

At trial, only Ariel and Terry testified; there was no cross-examination. The only evidence presented was the provenance of one of the pieces and the consignment agreement with the gallery. Neither the Evelyn Statsinger Trust nor the gallery presented evidence.

The trial court found in favor of the Brenners. The trust and the gallery appealed, arguing for a de novo standard of review because the facts of the case were not in dispute, only the legal status of the paintings.

The defendants argued that possession of the property granted a presumption of ownership, against which the Brenners bore the burden of persuasion and that they had failed to sufficiently prove ownership to overcome the presumption from possession, since they had offered only “self-serving” testimony.

The appeals panel disagreed with that argument. First, the appellate court emphasized that since the case was resolved only after a trial and a weighing of the evidence presented, the appropriate standard of review is not de novo but the manifest weight of the evidence, where the trial’s court findings must be “arbitrary, unreasonable or not based on the evidence” in order to warrant reversal.

The appellate court agreed that the twenty years’ possession did give the presumption of ownership to Statsinger and the gallery; however, the appellate court emphasized that no fiduciary relationship existed between Statsinger and the Brenners, since they were never paid for the works, “the degree of proof necessary to rebut the presumption of ownership arising from possession of personal property is correspondingly lower.”

In summary, the appellate court found that the trial court had not ruled against the manifest weight of the evidence in finding that the plaintiffs had overcome that presumption of ownership. The appellate court also noted that neither the trust nor the gallery produced any evidence supporting their claim to ownership other than the length of possession.

Accordingly, the appellate court affirmed the trial court’s decision in favor of the Brenners.

Brenner v. Evelyn Statsinger Trust and Richard Gray Gallery, 2018 IL App (1st) 180131 (Nov. 20, 2018).

Kreisman Law Offices has been handling probate litigation matters, guardianships, civil jury trials and catastrophic injury lawsuits for individuals, families and loved ones who have been injured, harmed or killed by the carelessness or negligence of another for more than 40 years in and around Chicago, Cook County and its surrounding areas, including Bridgeview, Oak Forest, Melrose Park, Lansing, Vernon Hills, Lincolnshire, Lincolnwood, Glenwood, Bensenville, Bellwood, Bedford Park, Chicago Ridge, Country Club Hills, Crete, Beecher, Barrington, South Barrington, Hickory Hills, Hazel Crest, Tinley Park, Chicago (Roscoe Village, Beverly, Edgebrook, Edison Park, Garfield Park, Horner Park, Irving Park, Kenwood, Bronzeville, Andersonville, Avondale, Palmer Square, Archer Heights, Lincoln Square, McKinley Park, Sauganash, South Loop), Skokie, Schiller Park, Round Lake Beach, Calumet City, Oak Lawn, Oak Park and Orland Park, Ill.

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