The Bitter Legal Battle over Peggy Guggenheim’s Blockbuster Art Collection
Gore Vidal once described Peggy Guggenheim “as the last of Henry James’s transatlantic heroines, Daisy Miller with rather more balls.” Guggenheim, who died in 1979 at the age of 81, has also been called everything from “fascinatingly complex” and a “vibrant, accomplished and active woman” to “Daffy Duck dressed in slinky silk” and “glamorous but lightweight and oversexed.” As one critic put it, “Even her sunglasses made news.”
For much of the 20th century she was the enfant terrible of the art world and one of its most influential patrons. In 1949, she bought an 18th-century palazzo on the Grand Canal, in Venice, and turned it into an avant-garde salon that was said to have “more than once shocked Venice’s Renaissance soul.” Guests included Tennessee Williams, Somerset Maugham, Igor Stravinsky, Jean Cocteau, and Marlon Brando. She built one of the great collections of modern art, 326 paintings and sculptures that would become known as the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, including works by Pablo Picasso, Jackson Pollock, Constantin Brancusi, Joan Miró, Alexander Calder, Salvador Dalí, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Alberto Giacometti, Wassily Kandinsky, and Marcel Duchamp. (“Her choices affected the course of twentieth-century art history,” wrote one of her biographers, Mary V. Dearborn.) Before Guggenheim died, she donated the palazzo, along with her collection, to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, started in 1937 by her uncle, who opened the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York in 1959. (“My uncle’s garage, that Frank Lloyd Wright thing on Fifth Avenue,” she called it.) The Peggy Guggenheim Collection opened six days a week to the public in 1980 and has become the most visited museum of modern art in Italy. Its annual attendance has increased tenfold in 35 years to about 400,000.
But the collection has also been the focus of a bitter — and seemingly endless — legal battle between the Guggenheim Foundation and some of Peggy Guggenheim’s descendants, who claim that her collection has been repeatedly mismanaged. They even accuse the foundation of desecrating her grave. The legal briefs have become increasingly acrimonious. The foundation says that it has faithfully carried out Peggy’s wishes, that she never said the collection should remain as she left it, and it describes the descendants’ claims as “distortions,” “pointless,” “ridiculous and outrageous,” and “devoid of good faith.” It also says that a 2013 letter to the foundation from the descendants’ attorney “leaves little room for doubt as to their genuine objectives: they believe they can obtain a financial settlement” from the foundation.
Peggy’s grandson Sandro Rumney, the leader of the lawsuits on behalf of the descendants, told me, “The legal fees for the case now before the French Supreme Court are 5,000 euros. We don’t ask for any other financial compensation.” For their part, Rumney and other family members insist that Peggy wanted her collection to stay the way she left it and accuse the foundation of being “indecent,” having “bad faith,” trying to “bury the truth,” giving “the palazzo a commercial bent,” and “trying to divide a family that has been through a lot by offering some of its members compensation in exchange for testimony that is, at least, in error.”
In legal documents, the foundation denies offering compensation and points out that it had received “letters in support” from Rumney’s cousins — three of the children and a grandson of Peggy’s son, Sindbad Vail — “none of whom was offered compensation in exchange for testimony.”
This art-world brouhaha, which started in 1992, has resulted in four court decisions — in 1994, 2014, 2015, and last year — against the descendants. Lawyers for both sides have been arguing over French, Italian, and New York law, with no end in sight. It all flared up again, in a big way, in 2013, after Rumney became enraged by an inscription he saw on the museum’s façade during the Venice Biennale acknowledging the “Hannelore B. and Rudolph B. Schulhof Collection” next to the “Peggy Guggenheim Collection.” It turned out that the foundation had removed from display some of the works in the Peggy Guggenheim Collection and replaced them with pieces bequeathed by Mrs. Schulhof. She and her husband were two late powerhouse collectors, whose son, Michael, has been a trustee of the Guggenheim Foundation since 2009.
“This was such a betrayal and I felt so sorry for Peggy,” Rumney wrote (with Laurence Moss) in an autobiography published in 2015. “Peggy and I never saw eye to eye when I was growing up . . . but today I know I have to fight for her and her Collection.”