Decamot of the month

31 May 2020-Eye of the Beholder

The secrets of modern art unravel when an executor to the will of a renowned superstar is appointed for no apparent reason.

The envelope franked with the name of Webber & Webber Solicitors looked innocuous enough although Harry Mason thought it might be a cold canvass letter for their will writing service, something he knew he ought not to put off for much longer, if only to stop his brother nagging him about it every time they met for a drink.

What brother Oscar didn’t seem to appreciate was that Harry’s total assets really weren’t worth a hill of beans, as he spent most of his income living beyond his means aspiring to a typical upper-middle-class lifestyle; big mortgage, school fees for 2.4 children, eating out, frequent trips to the theatre and an Arsenal FC season ticket which was becoming something of a mixed expensive blessing in more ways than one.

The problem was finding the time to concentrate on ‘necessities’ that were genuinely needed and those that were only of passing importance; then, once priorities had been sorted, to give the subject matter due consideration; most important of all, having assessed all the options, to take decisive action even if it meant filing the letter in the circular filing cabinet; or, more than likely in Harry’s case, making the wrong decision though lack of patience; but that was in his nature – easy come easy go. He had always been able to do anything to a reasonable standard without much apparent effort or coaching; play any sport, pass any exam etc. etc.

What’s more, he couldn’t see himself changing which was in sharp contrast to his brother Oscar whose personal finances were always in apple pie order and whose lifestyle requirements appeared modest by his brother’s standards.

“But it doesn’t make me a bad person” as Oscar was fond of saying whenever Harry teased him about spending money. “I would love to spend money like you do but I just can’t do it!”

“Well just relax a bit Oscar – treat yourself to a slap-up meal some time! Better still, now the kids are off your hands, buy yourself a sportscar and go touring on the continent!”

It was all light-hearted banter, but the truth was, for all the apparent commercial and business success of Harry Mason, his brother Oscar would have been surprised to learn that his own accumulated assets dwarfed those of his more flamboyant sibling. He had always admired Harry’s work ethic; his high public profile and his ability to mix in social circles well above their own humble origins. He assumed that his brother was doing well financially.

Although they had been at the same primary school together, Harry had gone on to the local grammar school whereas Oscar had preferred the neighbourhood comprehensive. All these thoughts rushed through Harry’s brain as he opened the letter, but he was not prepared for what he now read.

Dear Mr Mason,

Estate of the late Harvey Bloom

We write to inform you that you have been named as an executor, together with ourselves, in the will of the late Harvey Bloom of Bloom Galleries, 12 Kings Road, London SW3.

If you are willing to serve in this capacity, could you please contact us immediately as you are also named as one of the beneficiaries.

Yours sincerely
Joseph Hymans LLB
Senior Partner

Harry Mason was flabbergasted and thought there must be some mistake. He had never had any dealings with Harvey Bloom and knew very little about Bloom Galleries, except what he had read in the cultural press over the years, the notoriously provocative contemporary modern artist known as Kay-Kay being Bloom’s most famous British client. Even people not interested in art had heard of Britain’s very own enfant terrible.

When students from Goldsmith College, including Kay-Kay but lead by Damien Hirst, staged an exhibition in 1988 called Freeze it was sponsored by Charles Saatchi. The group was to become known as Young British Artists (YBA) but it was Bloom who subsequently championed a sub sect led by Kay-Kay under the philosophical title of Ironic Realism, which became an overnight sensation in the USA.

Bloom was often pictured in the press with American artists like Jeff Koons, Robert Gober, Peter Halley, Haim Steinbach, Philip Taaffe, and Carroll Dunham. The work which launched Ironic Realism was Kay-Kay’s installation based on a chandelier suspended from the ceiling. In the place of light bulbs were a variety of stuffed animals in glass bottles including bats, bullfrogs, cats and rats.

The piece was entitled Suspended Animation and attracted more visitors in its two-month exhibition run than Damien Hirst’s shark in formaldehyde entitled The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living and Tracy Emins’ infamous Unmade Bed put together. Kay-Kay, who had led a famously bohemian lifestyle, died from an apparent drug overdose in 1995 whereupon all his most famous works immediately rose in value.

Bloom Galleries staged a major retrospective of his work in 2005 to mark the tenth anniversary of his untimely death, by which time pieces that originally sold for as little as £1500 in 1988 were fetching upwards of £3 million.

The exhibition entitled “Kay-Kay Lives” featured a wide range of work, some from his teenage years before he went to Goldsmith College; an eclectic mix of oils on canvass, watercolours, installations and collages of all descriptions. It included his famous conceptual piece “Bland Canyon” which was a four-foot square empty red frame hung next another identical frame but twice the size, entitled Harvey Wallhangar.

In a rare interview with the Guardian at the time, Kay-Kay explained that these two pieces represented his artistic response to John Cage’s minimalist musical composition 4?33?.

Harry Mason pondered his next move and for once in his life decided to take stock and not rush in as he racked his brain to work out a possible link to Harvey Bloom. It was like looking for a needle in one of Monet’s haystacks, he thought, which is about as close as he had ever come to seeing a serious art exhibition and that was at The Tate in 2008.

After some soul searching he picked up his mobile and called his brother Oscar and was rewarded with an almost immediate pickup.

“Hi Harry! I was just thinking it was time I heard from you – don’t tell me - let me guess, you’re on some tropical island just for the weekend enjoying scrabbled egg with smoked salmon and a glass of champagne!”

“If only!” said Harry “No such luck - the chance would be a fine thing- but if I can drag you away from your chip butty, I would much appreciate your opinion on something I have just received from a city firm of lawyers called Mercer & Mercer”

“I’ll do my best brother Harry, but lawyers usually mean expensive advice so are best avoided unless you are finally getting around to writing your will, in which case you don’t need an expensive lawyer, just a proficient will writer”

“Yes, I know Oscar, but funnily enough this is about someone’s will – have you ever heard of Harvey Bloom?”

“No, can’t say I have Harry; who is he and how much do you owe him?”

“Oh, very funny Oscar, very funny! He is, or was, a very famous modern art dealer – the only real competitor to Charles Saatchi - you must have heard of him!”

“Not really Harry but didn’t you have an art teacher at your posh grammar school called Harvey Bloom? I seem to remember you telling me a joke when he retired - something about him claiming you wouldn’t forget him because all the school pencils had his initials on them!”

“Oscar! You are a genius! Fancy remembering that!”

“I thought it was one of your better jokes, I have to say!”

Harry Mason immediately went into hyper chase mode and Googled Kay-Kay whilst Oscar was still on the phone.

“Oscar” he said, “Guess what I have just uncovered on the internet?”

“Go on surprise me – it is raining outside?”

“Kay-Kay was born Keith Kendal!”

“Look Harry, you are not making much sense – who the hell is Kay-Kay and what has all this Harvey Bloom stuff got to do with it?”

“I’m sorry Oscar, let me start from the beginning. I have received this letter telling me that I am an executor on the will of the late Harvey Bloom and do I want to accept the appointment. Thanks to your brilliant recall of one of my old jokes, I also discover that his biggest client was none other than our old mate from council house days, Keith Kendal”

“You have to be joking Harry. Keith was a nasty little brat …. Didn’t you once have a fight with him on the old primary school football pitch? He was always envious of you as I recall – I thought he left your Grammar school under something of a cloud?”

“No, not really” said Harry, “but he did transfer to Goldsmith College at about the time Harvey Bloom took early retirement. Keith was a bit mixed up emotionally to be honest – his mother used to sing in pubs and his father was a turf accountant which is a potent combination when you think about it – a gambler and a diva – you can see how that might produce a leading contemporary artist called Kay-Kay can’t you?”

“If you say so Harry – now can I go back to my deep-fried mars bar?”

Harry laughed out loud as he thanked his brother profusely for his help, ended the call and immediately put in another to Mercer & Mercer. Two days later he met Joseph Hymans at in their offices on Bunhill Row EC1 not far from the Barbican.

After the standard opening pleasantries “do call me Jo, Harry – may I call you Harry” the two new acquaintances were anxious to get down to business; both more than a little intrigued to be sitting opposite each other.

“How long have you known Harvey Bloom?” asked Jo

“He was my art teacher for three terms at Hessle Grove, but I barely remember a conversation with him as art was not my forte – he took early retirement I think. It was only after receiving your letter that I made any connection with him and Bloom Galleries. What about yourselves?”

“I have known Harvey Bloom personally for over thirty years. I helped him set up Bloom Galleries back in 1988 and Mercer & Mercer have acted for him ever since. He was as surprised as anyone at the phenomenal success Bloom became in contemporary art especially in the USA – only Saatchi matched him in stature in the pop art world.”

“How important was Kay-Kay to that success? said Harry “Because he is the only other connection that I can make to Bloom and me. We were all at Hessle Grove together until Keith Kendal, as I knew him, moved to Goldsmiths”

“Oh, very important, Harry. Kay-Kay was Harvey’s protégé – he would have thought twice about raising money for his first gallery if he hadn’t spotted the rare talent in Kay-Kay early on. He always said he couldn’t teach Keith Kendal anything. It was instinctive from the moment he looked at his early work”

“Well, I can’t imagine why Harvey asked me to be an executor to his will, but I am willing to give it a go if you can explain the limits of my duties,”

“The job is basically to carry out Harvey’s instructions as stated in his will and to make sure the right amount of tax gets paid be it Inheritance tax, capital gains tax or income tax. As we have also been appointed executors, I would suggest we concentrate on the latter, whilst you work on any issues that might arise among potential beneficiaries”

“How long will all this take?” asked Harry

“I think it could be anything up to twelve months or more but who knows? Although he was a relatively wealthy man, his will basically states that all his assets are to be turned into cash and divided between three major charities in equal shares. As he was unmarried and was an only child himself, there shouldn’t be any complications from disappointed family relatives or the odd bogus gold digger.”

“Your letter said that I was one of the beneficiaries?” said Harry

“Ah yes, I nearly forgot. Harvey has left one of Kay-Kay’s early works directly to you personally, not to be included in the general three-way split. It is in a safety deposit box at Coutts. You can collect it at any time by taking this authorisation with you”

Joseph Hymans handed Harry a letter of authorisation addressed to the manager of Coutts signed by Harvey Bloom about two months earlier, giving him the safety deposit box number. Two days later he was shown into a waiting room at Coutts on the Strand by George Watts, a somewhat stiff individual who might have been auditioning for a part in a Dickensian drama.

“If sir would kindly wait here, I will retrieve said safety box from our security area and bring it to you”

A few minutes later, Harry was presented with a large wooden box with a hinged top which he opened to reveal a tastefully framed watercolour approximately 3 ft by 2 ft mounted on a light oak frame under glass, wrapped lovingly in tissue paper. As he gently removed the protective paper, memories came flooding back to Harry as he recognised the painting as one of his own.

Harvey Bloom had set the class a task – to paint something to commemorate the Battle of Britain. Harry had decided to have a bit of fun because he knew he couldn’t draw to save his life. His picture was effectively a very crude sky scope – sweeping clouds above white cliffs might just have been one interpretation. Harry remembered knocking it off in ten minutes whilst his fellow students agonised over perspective and getting exactly the right fuselage markings on a squadron of Lancaster bombers as they took off from Biggin Hill.

“And what pray is the title of your little masterpiece, Mason?” Harvey Bloom had asked in a sneeringly superior tone, which he was prone to do with pupils of no artistic talent whatsoever. “A spitfire out of sight … SIR !!!” had been Harry’s rehearsed reply leaping to his feet with a mock Dad’s Army style exaggerated salute.

It was a response which had brought the house down but earned Harry Mason a detention for insolent behaviour and a suitably blunt note of rebuke from the headmaster on his otherwise satisfactory end of term school report.

Harry smiled at the memory then noticed that his picture had been signed in the bottom right hand corner by Keith Kendal or to be more accurate by Kay-Kay with his trademark double Ks in bold capitals.

“Cheeky bugger” thought Harry as he opened an envelope with his name on it and sat down to read a message from Harvey Bloom himself

My dear Mason,

By now you will have seen A Spitfire Out Of Sight by Kay-Kay which I am gifting to you as I have been troubled by its attribution for years. I owe you an apology as well as an explanation. I used it as part of a fund-raising exercise for my first gallery back in 1985. A wealthy American collector who I had known for many years and who trusted my judgement, purchased it in good faith for US$ 2000 which helped me kit out the gallery.

I always knew that Keith Kendal, or Kay-Kay as I re-invented his marketing persona, would make it in the eccentric world of modern art, but his own early work lacked subtlety. I had no idea then that Ironic Realism as I christened it, would become the defining pop art philosophy of the nineties and that demand would be so strong for Kay-Kay’s work. When he died in 1995 I bought back Spitfire for US$ 150,000, as I knew it was not by him at all.

It has been in the vault at Coutts ever since and I bequeath it to you now as an act of atonement. Please feel free to do what you wish with it, but I suggest you might like to keep this explanation to yourself.

In gratitude

Harvey Bloom aka Kay-Kay

Harry Mason sat for an hour thinking through his situation, its implications and what he should do next. How many Kay-Kay’s were there in existence? How many might be fakes? In his role as executor he needed to liquidate Harvey Bloom’s total estate and turn it into cash for distribution to three charities. He called his brother Oscar again and over a compromise Chinese takeaway they met at Oscar’s house to evaluate all the options as well as debate the moral issues involved. Between them a plan was formulated which satisfied Harry’s conscience up to a point.

A year later almost to the day, Harry Mason and Joseph Hymans concluded their work as joint executors having paid £15 million, net of their own expenses and tax, to each of three charities … The Terrence Higgins Trust, The Royal Academy of Arts and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

A Spitfire Out Of Sight hangs in Harry Mason’s dining room which usually provokes a comment from dinner guests along the lines

“Wow Harry – that looks like a Kay-Kay – is it an original”

To which Harry replies truthfully ….

“Oh yes it’s an original alright I can vouch for that … which makes it priceless”

Amongst other things, Harry’s newly drawn will leaves A Spitfire Out Of Sight to his brother Oscar.

Inspired by the following Decamot items: diva, island, chandelier, egg, sports car, executor, digger, brain, canyon, needle