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$100 million-plus for Huntington will be largest cash gift in institution's history

November 16, 2010 | 10:00 am

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The suspense is over. Now that the late Frances Brody’s other heirs have received their shares of her fortune, the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens has a much clearer idea of its own windfall from the L.A. art patron’s estate: a gift expected to easily exceed $100 million.

This represents by far the largest cash gift in the history of the Huntington, which was previously $21 million from Charles and Nancy Munger in 2002. It could even surpass the original endowment created when railroad magnate Henry E. Huntington died in 1927, which is roughly $107 million if adjusted for inflation.

“A number of museums have received significant gifts when you value the art and cash donations together,” says Steven S. Koblik, president of the Huntington. “But as a pure cash gift, this has very few equivalents -- except for the founding gifts that create institutions.”

Tim Seiler, one of the directors at the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University, agrees. "It's an extraordinary gift, especially for the cultural sector. A $100 million gift more typically goes to a school or university, and it's often a naming gift."

The few comparables tend to come from New York. In 2005, David Rockefeller made a $100-million pledge to the Museum of Modern Art, which ranks as its largest-ever cash gift. In 2008, Leonard Lauder's art foundation gave $131 million to the Whitney Museum of American Art, also its largest.

Brody died in November 2009 at age 93, leaving behind a wealth of artwork — including Giacometti bronzes and Matisse paintings — that she had acquired with her husband, Sidney, a real-estate developer who had died more than two decades earlier. The value of this art directly affected the size of her gift to the Huntington, where she was a board member for 20 years.

This October, the institution received $15 million in cash intended by Brody to improve the botanical gardens, one of her most passionate concerns as a board member. That amount, Koblik says, was specified in her trust instrument and was not in doubt.

The mystery, rather, was how much money the Huntington would receive for also being named the estate’s sole “residual beneficiary” — the heir who is paid after all others should the estate have extra money left over. That’s when the art figured in. When the art world witnessed Christie's sell several of Brody’s masterpieces in May, led by Picasso’s “Nude, Green Leaves and Bust” for $106.5 million (which set a record as the most expensive work of art ever sold at auction), Koblik was watching with particular interest.

“It was an amazing moment,” he says. “When the Christie’s sale of the artwork proved so successful, we knew that would change the nature of our gift.” In effect, the auction created a surplus of $80 million after the other estate payouts, an amount that hit the Huntington’s bank account last week.

Brody estate trustee Robert Shuwarger says the Huntington’s final gift will consist of proceeds from selling the remaining property, including Brody’s A. Quincy Jones house in Holmby Hills. The listing price of the house, which has been on the market since May, has dropped from $24.95 million to $21 million.

“There’s also some miscellaneous property — some silver, porcelain, antiquities, things of that nature — that will be going up for sale at Christie’s,” Shuwarger says. He anticipates that most of those sales will be completed within six months.

Per Brody’s wishes, the full Huntington gift will benefit the botanical gardens, which cover 120 acres of the vast property in San Marino. According to James Folsom, director of the gardens, high-priority projects include “improving and modernizing” a water irrigation system that dates to the early 20th century and creating a “potager” or kitchen garden to complement the existing herb garden. Folsom says that these were pet projects of Brody, who loved her garden at home and, though known for her high style, was not too glamorous to get into a truck with him to drive around and shop for plants at nurseries.

Koblik adds that using the Brody money for botanical purposes frees up existing funds to address other needs, like “making staff salaries more competitive.” This does not, however, mean “quick raises,” he adds, noting the importance of resisting the natural urge “to get overexcited and spend money quickly to do everything we haven’t been able to do.”

Rather, he plans to treat the windfall “like an endowment,” to be invested in a diversified portfolio. (The Huntington’s actual endowment is about $240 million.) The plan is to spend only 5% of the value of the Brody funds over a three-year running average.

And, yes, Koblik says, this legacy-building gift more than compensates for not receiving Brody’s now-famous Picasso. “Right from the beginning of our relationship, Francie said to me, 'You’re not getting the art.' It took the discussion off the table,” he says.

“It was clear to all of us who spent time with Francie that she wanted to make a fiscal difference at the Huntington — she understood the power of this kind of gift.” 

-- Jori Finkel

twitter.com/jorifinkel

Photo: Frances' Brody's home, which was designed in 1950 by A. Quincy Jones. Credit: Kate Carr Photography

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