Painting’s story touches Blochs, FBI and the Nelson

For the past seven years, a beautiful Edgar Degas pastel of a dancer in the collection of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art has been the centerpiece of a saga involving the FBI, tax magnate Henry Bloch and a reclusive New York copper heiress.

Bloch bought the artwork, “Dancer Making Points (Danseuse faisant des pointes)” (1879-80), in 1993 through a New York dealer, Susan L. Brody, for his growing private collection of French impressionist art.

At the time, he had no idea that the pastel, recently valued at $10 million, had disappeared the year before from the New York apartment of Huguette Clark, a copper heiress and U.S. senator’s daughter, and that the work was the subject of an FBI search.

In 1999, Bloch and his wife, Marion Bloch, announced their intention to give the Degas pastel to the Nelson along with the rest of the impressionist collection they had amassed over 30 years.

The Degas piece was featured in “Manet to Matisse,” an exhibit of their promised gift mounted in conjunction with the 2007 opening of the Nelson-Atkins Museum’s Bloch Building.

By this time, Nelson officials had known for two years that the work was under investigation by the FBI. In 2005 the agency informed them that it was missing from a private collection. But the museum didn’t learn that the work had been owned by Clark until mid-December 2007, when the FBI informed Henry Bloch of her loss.

It is not clear who informed the FBI of the artwork’s disappearance, but it was not Clark, who abhorred publicity. To date, how the painting came to be lost is not clear.

Bloch was determined that the pastel should go to the Nelson and in 2008, he sent representatives to speak to Clark’s representatives to resolve the artwork’s status.

“He was steadfast and he always wanted it to come to the Nelson,” said John R. Phillips, the attorney who has represented the Blochs and the museum.

The parties agreed that Clark would give the pastel to the Nelson-Atkins. She took the tax deduction for the gift. Because the heiress was more than 100 years old at the time of the agreement, the Nelson received a signed affidavit from Clark’s physician attesting to her competence.

The Degas pastel entered the museum’s collection in October 2008, after the museum agreed to two provisions.

The first was that the Nelson would honor a request to lend the work to the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., with which Clark and her family had a close relationship.

The second was that terms of the gift be kept private.

Although Clark died in May 2011, the Nelson continued to respect the confidentiality agreement.

“There wasn’t clarity from our perspective. We weren’t comfortable,” Phillips said. “We knew it would eventually come out through court proceedings (regarding Clark’s will).”

The saga became public this week as part of an ongoing series about Clark and her fortune by a reporter for Msnbc.com, Bill Dedman.

“We now feel we can talk about the surrounding circumstances with some freedom,” Phillips said.

“We were in a confidentiality agreement, otherwise we would have celebrated (earlier),” said Nelson-Atkins director/CEO Julián Zugazagoitia. “Today we can finally reveal that it was a win-win.”

“It’s the characters involved,” he added. “When this came to the fore, (Clark) understood that (Bloch’s) intention was always to benefit the museum. The Nelson will receive the integrity of his vision when all of these works come together at the museum. We stood by our obligation of respecting our donors’ intent. It’s a great day for Kansas City.”

Clark’s relatives are challenging her will in court, a battle that might include questions about her mental competence when she signed the Nelson deed of gift.

“We see them as totally separate, and feel very comfortable with the ownership position of the Nelson, as we were in 2008,” Phillips said of the gift and the will.