NEW YORK » For decades, a shrewd Chinese emigre with a puff of silver hair dominated the rarefied market for ancient Chinese art. Going by the anglicized name C.C. Wang, he sold centuries-old pieces for millions, including 60 works that went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and are sometimes shown in the C.C. Wang Family Gallery on the museum’s second floor.
He came to the United States from China in 1949, bringing with him his wife and his two youngest daughters. He left behind his oldest daughter as well as his only son, who languished for decades working in a television factory before finally making it to New York in 1979 with his own family.
C.C. Wang, after some years of erratic behavior, died in 2003 at 96, still owning about 240 works yet to be sold or donated, the remainder of what experts had called the greatest collection of Chinese masters outside China.
Since then, his son and one of his younger daughters have been locked in a $50 million will battle that reads like a movie script, with claims of stolen masterpieces, smuggled art, a furtive meeting in Shanghai and old grievances stemming from the decision to leave the son behind six decades ago.
At the crux of the fight in Manhattan Surrogate’s Court is the significant difference in the lives of the two warring siblings. The sister, Yien Koo Wang King, now 73, lived a comfortable life in New York. The brother, Shou-Kung Wang, 80, lived much of his life in China, and his adversaries claim that he has long believed he should be compensated for those lost years.
"I could make a film out of what’s happening to our family," said a son of Shou-Kung Wang, according to a transcript of one family meeting he secretly recorded.
In interviews, each of the warring siblings said the other had made false charges of looting the collection.
"We know they have put all the art in China," said Wang, who survived the Cultural Revolution and now lives in Forest Hills, Queens.
The sister said her brother "felt entitled that he should have everything" because of what he had been through.
"That a great family like ours should experience such tragedy is unthinkable to me," she added.
In April, a Manhattan surrogate, Judge Kristin Booth Glen, said the competing claims would soon have to be sorted out in a trial. It would be likely to feature bitter testimony about artworks with serene names, like "Scholar Under a Pine Tree" and "Tasting Tea Beside Bamboo and Rock." When C.C. Wang (pronounced WONG) and his wife, Yuan-Su, left China during the Communist revolution in 1949, they took their youngest girls, Yien Koo—known as Y.K.—and another daughter, who would die in the United States in the 1960s. The oldest daughter, who was left in China along with the son, made it to the United States in the early 1960s and has not been active in the legal battle.
The son, Shou-Kung, known as S.K., was 21 at the time. He may have been left with his older sister to care for a grandmother, family members said. But the sweep of events unexpectedly froze lives in place.
Y.K., who came to New York in 1949, was educated in the United States, married an architect and lived on the Upper East Side, not far from her father’s studio on East 69th Street.
She worked for years in the art world, as a ceramic artist and then as her father’s public face, dealing with galleries and helping put together museum shows. Those were years when C.C. Wang, a descendant of a literary luminary of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), shaped an American reputation. It was based in part on the classical works he had begun to collect when, as a young scholar and artist in China, he had been given rare access to the ancient works cloistered in the Imperial Palace.
In China, meanwhile, Shou-Kung, an electrical engineer, had a grim life working at the television factory. Communist officials treated him with suspicion because of his American family. In a deposition in the Surrogate’s Court battle, he was asked why he had been left behind in China.
"The question," he replied, "has been bothering me for like 30 years."
When he arrived in New York in 1979, with poor English and no marketable skills, the brother went to work doing his father’s books, earning $12,000 annually for years.
The sister testified that whatever their father gave her, the brother had a demand: "’I want double."’
Despite his meager salary, the sister’s family has claimed that he somehow managed to amass a fortune. They have said that it was stolen from C.C. Wang and that the brother’s Tudor home in Forest Hills is worth $2 million.
But the brother and his son Andrew Wang, who was a teenager when his family arrived in 1979, countered that the sister and her husband had shipped 93 prized artworks from the collection to a relative in Malaysia. They, the brother’s side said, have looted most of C.C. Wang’s property "and now wish to finish the job."
The sister, in turn, said she had caught her brother and his son red-handed removing artworks from a Manhattan vault where some of the collection had been kept. "They had two shopping bags" bulging with scrolls that were hundreds of years old, she said.
Adding to the confusion, each side cites accusations that were first lodged by C.C. Wang himself. In his tumultuous final years, he was, depending upon the version, either understandably worried about his beloved art, or "hallucinating, seeing rats, seeing cockroaches."
In any event, the old man doled out suspicion enough for both sides.
Over the years, the bookkeeping responsibilities of the brother had expanded to include managing his father’s considerable business affairs. That abruptly ended in 1998, when C.C. Wang suddenly turned over responsibility for business management to the sister and her husband. He "banished" the brother, argues the sister’s side of the family, because he concluded that the brother had stolen scores of works and millions of dollars.
But in 2003, C.C. Wang suddenly shifted course again, reinstalling his son as his financial alter ego and ousting his daughter.
This time, C. C. Wang said, he had discovered that Y.K. and her husband were the thieves. The sister’s husband, he said, had literally snatched a $3 million artwork out of his hands.
Each side says the other took control of C.C. Wang’s mind. But the sister’s lawyer, Randy M. Mastro, argued that by the time of C.C. Wang’s 2003 change of direction, when he also drew up a new will that disinherited Y.K., he had dementia, including a stubborn delusion that relatives were starving him to death. His wife died 10 days before he did.
In her April ruling, Glen seemed dizzied by the crisscrossing accusations. She expressed suspicion of both sides.
At a 2003 family meeting that was secretly recorded, the judge wrote, both the sister and the brother’s son Andrew Wang seemed comfortable talking about how they would divide the artworks "when Granddad won’t be here any longer," as Andrew Wang put it. The judge noted that Granddad—C.C. Wang—was in the room listening at the time.
The Wang family drama may have had its most cinematic moment in 2005, two years after C.C. Wang’s death, when the sister and her husband quietly met with the brother’s son at a hotel in Shanghai. Both sides say they carted artwork with them to try to make a deal.
There the agreement ends. The sister’s side said in court filings that Andrew Wang signed a receipt for 46 works. He said his aunt and her husband falsified the document, and he has insisted that he did not receive most of the works listed.
A few weeks ago, the sister’s side filed new accusations, saying Andrew Wang exhibited five pieces from the C.C. Wang Collection at a Beijing museum last year. Among those works, the sister claimed, was one worth a few million dollars, a work that she said Andrew Wang had claimed he did not have.
Hilton Soniker, a lawyer for the brother’s side, said Andrew Wang "will be denying the accusations."