Rogues (and claims) gallery

Settling the estate of an eccentric artist who left behind bizarre artefacts and hundreds of claimants has been the (strangest) case of a lifetime, explains Peter Walmsley

Paul Walmsely

Paul Walmsely

There are certain cases in every lawyer’s career that can be determined as a landmark, and for my colleagues and I the administration of the estate of Robert O Lenkiewicz – the controversial but renowned West Country artist, bibliophile and eccentric – has been just that.

Lenkiewicz died in Plymouth in August 2002. From the start of the administration his estate was treated as potentially insolvent. His assets comprised a large collection of his own paintings and probably the most extensive private library in the UK, as well as other collectables (including the embalmed body of a tramp, Diogenes, the skeleton of Ursula Kemp who was hanged as a witch, and various body parts including a Holocaust skin lamp).

In contrast, he had only one bank account credited with £9, no investments and only £40 in cash. If he needed to buy anything he simply “swapped” or sold a painting.

Once his death had been announced (and, indeed, confirmed – just a few years previously he had faked his own death to ascertain the reaction) there were nearly 350 individual claims brought against the estate from UK and overseas jurisdictions, as well as five Inheritance Act claims.

In order to mitigate the potential insolvency of the estate, and to provide funds both for valid claimants and the two charities that had been set up to protect and promote the Lenkiewicz legacy, experts from Sotheby’s worked with us to create an international market for Lenkiewicz’s paintings.

At the first auction sale in September 2003, 152 paintings were sold at Sothebys at far above their reserve prices realising a net income of around £543,500. 

Subsequent auction sales of paintings and ephemera were held in the West Country by auctioneers Bearnes (now Bearnes Hampton & Littlewood) realising net sales of over £3m.  Parts of the deceased’s library, including many medieval works on the topic of witchcraft and the occult, were sold by Sothebys and also by Lyon & Turnbull of Edinburgh realising further net sales of over £850,000.

Against the background of possible insolvency, and in light of the complexity and multiplicity of claims, overarching case management orders were obtained from the Chancery Division one of which provided that, for logistical reasons, all proceedings were to dealt with at Torquay County Court.

The management of claims was dealt with by my partner Peter Lewis, who heads up the dispute resolution team at Boyce Hatton. Representation and advice came from Siân Warnock Smith QC (who had previously advised on the estate of Francis Bacon), Adam Vaitilingam of Albion Chambers Bristol, Paul Marshall of 4-5 Gray’s Inn Square and Craig Barlow of Ely Place Chambers.

The administration of the Lenkiewicz estate has provided us with challenges in a wide spectrum of law.  The largest claimant against the estate was HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC).

It was quite clear that Lenkiewicz had not paid income tax or VAT on the sale of his pictures, and because records had not been properly kept, and because some pictures were sold while others were given away or swapped for services and support, it was difficult to ascertain exactly what his income had been.

Working with an accountancy firm we reached an agreement with HMRC whereby we would analyse the tax owed by looking at Lenkiewicz’s expenditure (he had, after all, spent everything he had earned).

Some legal challenges came out of the left field. The Plymouth Coroner had seized the embalmed body of Diogenes and had it stored in the mortuary at Derriford Hospital for three months. This led to an in-depth enquiry into the law relating to dead bodies, most of which was case and common law dating back to medieval times.

A major challenge was simply tracking down all the assets of the estate and then providing secure holding places for them. Lenkiewicz was very secretive and used flats all over Plymouth as studios, for which he usually paid in paintings for rent. As a consequence, his dealings in paintings (with confusion over who owned what) were often highly complex.

We also had to consider copyright law, and whether or not copyright had been disposed of when the paintings had been sold or given away.

We dealt with applications for copyright licences to reproduce images in the many books that were published following his death, and additional funds for the estate were raised by producing prints of his paintings.

Inheritance Act law also featured in the proceedings. Lenkiewicz claimed to have slept with thousands of women and fathered many children. Claims brought against the estate under the Inheritance Act were managed and resolved through mediation and the courts.

The estate is now estimated to be worth around £6.5m and it is expected to be wound-up in the following months.

As sole executor I will be handing over the remaining chattels (including the skeleton of Ursula Kemp) to the residuary beneficiary: this is the Lenkiewicz Foundation, which is a registered charity formed during the lifetime of Lenkiewicz to promote his interests through the study of his paintings and books.

Peter Walmsley is senior partner at Boyce Hatton Solicitors