The moment Melissa Neumann walked into a lawyer’s office eight years ago to hear the reading of her mother’s will, she felt unexpected tension in the air. Her older sister, Belinda Neumann Donnelly, was there but their eldest sister, Kristina Neumann, and their father, Hubert Neumann, the renowned art collector, were not. Belinda seemed fidgety and frazzled.
“What’s wrong?” Melissa recalls asking her sister as her stomach dropped.
Breathing rapidly, Belinda offered only vague consolations, then promised: “We’re going to make this right.”
Melissa says she was confused. Their late mother, Dolores Ormandy Neumann—a flame-haired harpist and early champion of graffiti artist Jean-Michel Basquiat—had for years told her three daughters that anything she left behind would be divided equally among them. The bulk of their family’s storied $1 billion art collection, with roughly 2,000 works that include pieces by Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró and Jeff Koons, was held in another trust managed by their father. But their mother had held onto a handful of paintings after she and Hubert separated decades before—including Basquiat’s Flesh and Spirit, a 12-foot-wide painting she bought for $15,000 in 1983, a masterpiece appraisers later told the family could be worth more than $40 million.Melissa quietly followed her sister into a conference room. Their mother’s estate lawyer sat at the far end of a long table and started to read.
The Philadelphia Orchestra, where their maternal great-uncle, Eugene Ormandy, once served as a legendary conductor, would receive a $100,000 bequest. Fitting, Melissa thought as she listened.
Belinda’s young sons, Miles and Jared, would be given their great-grandfather’s gold watch and an early graffiti work Dolores owned by the artist A-One, respectively. Belinda’s daughter, Winter, would get her grandmother’s Native American jewelry. That’s sweet, Melissa thought, even if she wished her mother had earmarked a piece of jewelry for her own young daughter.
Kristina, the eldest sister, was then allotted a roughly 10 percent share of the value of their mother’s estate—an undisclosed sum that was to be held in a trust overseen by Belinda. In the will, their mother wrote that was because Kristina “has had difficulties managing her financial affairs in the past, I have already given her cash sums during my life and she does not have children.”
Whoa, Melissa thought. That sounded harsh coming from their mother, who had particularly doted on Kristina.
The bigger bombshell came next: Melissa’s own portion of the estate was to be capped at $1 million, which she could also share with her children so long as she didn’t contest the will.
If she did, she got nothing.
“Excuse me—can you read that again?” Melissa asked.
She was reeling. Before her mother’s death, Melissa hosted her mother at her home several days a week so she could take care of her while juggling a midcareer pivot from banking to medicine. Melissa felt close to her mother, yet nothing sentimental had been bequeathed to her or her three children.
The lawyer read on: “My remaining tangible personal property owned by me at the time of my death and not otherwise disposed of pursuant to the preceding provisions of this Article, including without limitation personal effects, works of art, clothing, furniture, furnishings, household goods, automobiles and other vehicles, to my daughter, Belinda Neumann Donnelly.”
Melissa looked over at her sister, who had just inherited the Basquiat and nearly everything else.
This had never been the plan. What had changed?
“We’re sisters,” Melissa remembers Belinda saying, reaching over to squeeze her arm. “We’ll get through this.”
But it only got worse.
“A HISTORY of my father. Why this Will is a DISGRACE, a TRAVESTY and a Family Embarrassment”
Hubert Neumann, the family’s 92-year-old patriarch, typed this title atop a missive invoking his father’s legacy that he wrote after he read his estranged wife’s will. A stocky, puckish man with bushy white hair and a fondness for loud Hawaiian shirts, Hubert says he always intended to bequeath the entirety of the Morton G. Neumann Family Collection’s holdings equally to his three daughters. That’s what his father, Morton, had once done for him and his late brother, Arthur. He assumed his estranged wife and three daughters felt the same way about keeping the whole collection intact.
“We were always meant to do this together,” Hubert says now, sitting in his five-story Manhattan townhouse surrounded by many of these works, which line every wall and crowd every tabletop.
But in the eight years since his wife’s will was read, his family has descended into a feud with at least 18 lawsuits exchanged among them. More than a dozen are still active. Claims and counterclaims have spiraled across New York’s criminal, civil and family courts—sweeping in allegations of physical abuse, fraud and undue influence of the elderly. Ensuing trials and testimony from friends and family exposed generational rifts. Belinda sold the Basquiat for less than she wanted. In January, she tried to oust her father as manager of their family’s estimated $1 billion art trust.
“She just wants me dead,” he says about Belinda.
Belinda says she is just following her mother’s wishes.
Kristina, who has tried to stay above the fray, says her mother “would be heartbroken to see such family discord and would do everything possible to heal the family.”
Once Hubert read the will, he says he couldn’t stay silent, though. In 2018, Hubert read his letter of protest in a meeting with lawyers representing Belinda’s interests.
“My father Morton G. Neumann’s spirit and wisdom infuses this collection,” the letter reads, before denouncing his estranged wife’s “complete disregard of her responsibilities to the family legacy and the art world where she had a serious role for many years.”
That legacy begins with Morton, who made his fortune as a chemist in 1920s Chicago by launching a mail-order cosmetics business, Valmor Products. Morton began building a collection of antique silver and pastoral landscapes until his teenage son, Hubert, encouraged him to take a closer look at modern art in 1947.
In 1951, Morton took his two sons to visit Fernand Léger in France, and the trio wound up buying seminal pieces by Man Ray, Miró and Picasso, who later became the elder Neumann’s close friend.
Hubert says his father “taught me to love art like you love music—not intellectually, but because it hits you.”
A year after that European trip, Hubert was studying at the University of Michigan when he was smitten by a harpist named Dolores Ormandy. The couple married in 1954 and, after graduation, moved to New York—initially so he could work for a vintage eyewear designer, but ultimately to buy art for and with his father, by then a multimillionaire.
Over the next few decades, Hubert added contemporary artists such as John Chamberlain, Andy Warhol and Claes Oldenburg. Hubert paid $10,000 in 1983 for Basquiat’s Mitchell Crew, a wall-size work in turquoise now also considered a trophy.
By the 1990s, the National Gallery of Art and the Art Institute of Chicago were courting the family to donate or sell their trove, to no avail. Today, it’s an art-insider rite of passage to secure an invitation to tour Hubert’s home on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. The director of the Louvre, Laurence des Cars, recently stopped by.
Kristina showed little interest in collecting art, but Hubert says his two younger daughters embraced the family tradition. Belinda, curly-haired and gregarious, studied art history at the University of London’s Courtauld Institute of Art and ran her own art gallery in New York for a few years. Melissa, a bookish brunette, studied math at Cornell University, then worked as a financial research analyst at Lehman Brothers before switching recently to studying hematology-oncology.
Hubert and Dolores separated around 1989; they never divorced. Melissa says her parents continued to travel to art fairs and biennials together for decades afterward, with her mother insisting they celebrate family holidays and birthdays together.
Hubert continued to mentor his younger daughters in art, and the trio became well known in dealer circles. Whenever they encountered an artist they admired, Hubert typically got first pick for the family trust, and his daughters took their turns picking next. The resulting collection now contains key examples by Ashley Bickerton, Jeff Elrod and Nina Chanel Abney.
Melissa looks back fondly on these art-buying forays with her father and Belinda, whom she considered to be her best friend, she says. “We went everywhere together.”Belinda says she often feels nostalgic as well, but there were also some “dark times,” including memories of her father’s temper. She also says he played favorites.
In 2012, four years before the reading of Dolores’s will, Belinda and her husband, Jeffrey Donnelly, sold their Tribeca loft and regrouped temporarily by moving with their three children into the townhouse where her father lived.
She was wary about moving in because her father had a “volatile personality,” she says, but he also seemed lonely. “He assured us that the townhouse would be divided into separate units,” she says. Hubert denies being volatile or lonely but concurs he was initially happy about the move and agreed to keep mainly to the top two floors while Belinda’s family lived below.
On the evening of Feb. 18, 2015, Dolores, then 79, fell and broke her hip in her own Central Park West apartment, where she lived alone. She lay there for 20 minutes until a neighbor overheard her cries and called Belinda, who rushed her to the hospital, Belinda says.
While Dolores awaited surgery, Belinda says her mother asked her to call Amy Holzman, an estate lawyer recommended earlier by Alison Wolfson, a longtime family friend with whom Belinda was planning to open a gallery in the next couple of years.
Belinda called Holzman’s office at 8:45 a.m. that next morning, court files show. Since Holzman was on vacation, Belinda spoke to Holzman’s associate at the time, Ruby Wake, for around 45 minutes, according to testimony Wake later gave. Belinda told Wake that her father was a “miserable wretched person with a lot of money” and that her mother needed to update her longstanding will.
Records show Dolores’s three daughters were listed in that older, 1999 will as being co-executors equally. In the files, Hubert wasn’t named in this earlier will.
Belinda told Wake her mother “had three kids and did not want to leave them everything equally,” Wake testified. Belinda said that Melissa had married a hedge-fund manager since the drafting of her mother’s earlier will and was independently wealthy. Belinda also told Wake that her mother had “one very valuable painting,” referring to Basquiat’s Flesh and Spirit. Belinda said her mother now wanted to name Belinda as sole executor. Given the tenuousness of her mother’s health, she said her mother wanted the new will signed that day. Wake declined to comment.
Less than two hours later, Wake testified, she spoke to Dolores in her hospital bed about entrusting the entire estate to Belinda.
By 2 p.m., Wake had drafted a new will. Belinda, out at lunch with Wolfson, urged Wake “to email me a draft asap” so Belinda could print and scan it to show her mother before the law firm’s paralegal took the official paperwork to her mother to sign. Belinda also paid the $2,000 legal retainer.
A few hours after that, Dolores signed the new will, with Wolfson and Dolores’s brother-in-law serving as witnesses. Then Dolores headed off to her hip surgery, surviving a heart attack during the operation.
A week later, while recovering in a rehabilitation facility, Dolores asked to see her estate lawyer, Amy Holzman, who was back from her vacation. Dolores asked her to adjust the will again so that her two other daughters could get a percentage or amount from the estate. Holzman testified she also added a no-contest clause, which would disincentivize Belinda’s sisters from contesting the will’s terms. If the sisters disputed anything in the new version, they’d forfeit their portion.
Holzman testified that Dolores seemed lucid but that she didn’t know Dolores was taking painkillers and sedatives at the time. Her notes in the court files simply say Dolores kept reiterating that her daughter Belinda needed help because she was “financially insecure.”
Dolores was still in the rehabilitation facility on March 4 when Holzman arrived with the new will. Dolores told the lawyer she now wanted to reinclude all grandchildren but needed to gather more information, Holzman testified. Still, Dolores signed the new will.
Belinda says all she did was try to help her mother make new estate arrangements, that she didn’t get involved in the details. She says her mother believed Melissa was Hubert’s “favorite of us three daughters,” and would likely succeed her father as head of the family trust. Her mother, Belinda says, “did what she could to protect me.”
Melissa disputes Belinda’s characterization of her mother’s sentiments. Back home, she contends that their mother grew “frantic” about changing her will again—even asking her youngest daughter to help her hire yet another lawyer.
Unaware of any new will at the time, Melissa waited until the following summer to act. “My mother says that she signed a will that doesn’t reflect her intentions and she asked me to contact you,” Melissa wrote to a lawyer in August 2016.
But Dolores never followed up. She died of liver-related cancer the following month while staying in the family’s townhouse with her estranged husband and Belinda’s family.
N THE SPRING of 2018, word spread rapidly in art circles: Belinda was enlisting Sotheby’s to sell off the crown jewel of her mother’s estate, Basquiat’s Flesh and Spirit. Estimate: $30 million or more.
Until that point, the art market hadn’t paid much attention to the fate of Dolores’s estate because anything affiliated with the Neumanns was considered ungettable. Newspapers had long recounted Hubert’s desire to keep the bulk of the collection off the market. No one expected anything else.
The Basquiat sent a different message. Was the Neumann trove possibly in play?Mari-Claudia Jiménez, Sotheby’s managing director of trusts and estates at the time, says she didn’t directly handle the Basquiat consignment. But she says her entire team was intrigued by Dolores’s estate as well as the overall Neumann collection because their art held true “cult status,” she says. When she toured Hubert’s home, she says, “Everywhere you turn, there’s an iconic work worth millions.”
Sotheby’s agreed to help Belinda settle her mother’s estate taxes by auctioning off the painting.
“Keeping collections intact, that’s super hard to do because the next generation doesn’t always share the same passion,” says Jiménez. “It’s incredible for three generations to commit to the same purpose—to keep the same wonder.”
Then in May, what had been an internal family squabble broke out in the tabloids. Dad Sues His Daughter to Stop Auction of Basquiat Masterpiece blared the New York Post.
Hubert asked Sotheby’s to withdraw the painting. The auction house declined, telling the Post that his “11th-hour claim is entirely without merit.” A Manhattan Supreme Court judge agreed. Flesh and Spirit sold nearly two weeks later for $30.7 million.
Belinda was disappointed and countersued her father. “The painting would have fetched a much higher price if my father had not interfered with the sale,” she says.
Things got even more heated after Belinda says she found records in her mother’s personal effects of hospital visits that implied that Dolores had been physically abused in the early 1980s by Hubert. He adamantly denied the accusation when Belinda confronted him.
He asked her and her family to move out.
Belinda refused, getting an injunction to stay her eviction. Around this time, she also got an order of protection. She told New York’s Family Court that her father had banged on the door, “yelling and threatening,” and that she and her children were “petrified,” according to the May 30, 2018, petition. Hubert denies any threatening behavior.
The family court judge cordoned the family onto different floors, telling them to stay away from each other. Elevator locks were installed, bodyguards were hired—then fired—as the recriminations snowballed.
“It was awful,” Belinda says later. At one point, her father stopped paying for some of her children’s school tuition. Hubert later restarted payments.
Artists like Tom Sanford say they tried to sidestep conversations about the lawsuits whenever they encountered any of the Neumanns at exhibitions or fairs, and galleries like Gagosian seated them far apart at gallery dinners.
The nastiness reached a nadir on the evening of Dec. 22, 2018, when Belinda’s husband, Jeffrey, called 911. Jeffrey, who works in real estate financing, told the 911 dispatcher that Hubert had “just shoved me against a set of doors,” according to a transcript of the call. “He’s not supposed to have any contact with us at all, and he just created an aggressive situation.”
Hubert, 86 at the time, denied the shove. Security-camera footage installed in the house didn’t directly capture the encounter but showed Hubert being led out in handcuffs as Jeffrey looked on. Hubert says he slept on the cement floor of Manhattan’s 23rd Precinct. His cell had a metal bench, but he feared getting hurt if he rolled off in his sleep. Hubert says an officer pushed his baton through the cell bars to nudge Hubert’s foot “to make sure I was still alive.”
The next morning, Melissa met up with Hubert’s new girlfriend, former Chicago art collections manager Debra Purden, at the courthouse for Hubert’s arraignment. When he saw them, he cried.
Hubert returned to court in 2019 to refute the charge that he’d violated any protective order, but before the hearing started, Belinda and Jeffrey withdrew their requests for protection—and so the judge dismissed the charge. Belinda says later she withdrew it in part because the criminal court handling the arrest had by that point ordered her father to stay away from them.
Weeks later, another judge approved Hubert’s right to evict his daughter, ordering her to pay $16,364.34 in back rent.
It’s like a Dynasty situation,” says Hubert’s lawyer, Jay Itkowitz. Hubert asked him to show up on moving day to ensure Belinda’s family took only their belongings. They couldn’t take the art, after all. That remained in the trust.
Even so, the fate of the $1 billion trust remains in flux. Since her eviction, Belinda has gone back to Bronx County Surrogate’s Court to remove her father as the trust’s manager. Her father harbors “animus” toward her, she said in the filing. He is meant to represent her interests in the shared family collection, but she says she no longer trusts him to look after her. She can no longer rely on Melissa, either, and so requested her sister be barred from succeeding him as managing trustee. Belinda asked a court-appointed trustee to oversee their shared art.
Were Belinda to secure total control over the collection, Melissa worries that her sister would simply send it all to auction. Belinda says she has no plan to sell their entire collection.
Belinda has won at least one major legal victory. In February 2023, the matter that launched the whole family breakdown—the changing of Dolores’s will—came up for probate trial. After the major players and even a grandchild testified, the jury reached a verdict: Belinda hadn’t exerted undue influence on her mother to change her will. She had followed Dolores’s wishes, the decision implied, and her mother knew what she was doing.
The verdict gave her “an incredible feeling,” Belinda says, to feel like her “mother’s voice is finally being heard.”
Auction houses may have been among the few to log the trial’s outcome. They need supply, after all, and the more a family’s ties fray, the likelier a selloff eventually becomes.
“IT’S ALL so sad,” says Melissa Neumann, sitting at her kitchen table in the townhouse where she lives a few blocks away from her father.
Melissa mostly goes to art shows alone now, or occasionally with her father. She hasn’t spoken to Belinda in years.
She and her father have appealed the verdict on the will. On Jan. 10, they also scored a legal win of their own when the surrogate’s court denied Belinda’s request to summarily remove Hubert as managing trustee. The court said only a trial can ultimately kick him out. The court told Hubert to more regularly distribute trust funds to its beneficiaries. “It’s time for Hubert to treat his family with the same respect he treats the art,” says Belinda’s lawyer Terrence Oved.
In Melissa’s townhouse, she points to a skylight six stories above. Natural light spills down onto a central staircase, which is rimmed floor to ceiling with art. Taking a close look requires hours, given the Karen Kilimniks in the living room, the orange Keith Haring in the stairwell and the sliding racks of paintings ensconced on an upper floor—a storage solution more typically used by museums.
Melissa wants to follow in her grandfather’s footsteps and become the next caretaker of the Neumann Family Collection. That means she will likely have to jockey for position even after her father is gone.
That’s why she and her father recently put a few paintings up for auction themselves—including Wayne Thiebaud’s painting Pop Bottles. Sotheby’s sold the rainbow-hued work for $3.7 million last November. Selling it went against their avowed ambition to keep the collection intact.
The irony isn’t lost on them, but at the end of the day, she says, “We have to pay the legal bills.”
Write to Kelly Crow at firstname.lastname@example.org