- Associated Press - Sunday, June 17, 2012

NEW YORK — Her nurse was showered with almost $28 million in gifts, including three Manhattan apartments, two homes elsewhere and a $1.2 million Stradivarius violin. Her doctors’ families received more than $3 million in presents. A night nurse received a salary plus money to cover her children’s school tuition and to help buy two apartments.

Now the court-appointed official overseeing copper heiress Huguette Clark’s estate wants all these gifts - and more - back.

Saying the recipients manipulated the reclusive multimillionaire into lavishing largesse upon them during her long life, public administrator Ethel J. Griffin is trying to reclaim a whopping $37 million for the $400 million estate.

Besides seeking an order for return of those gifts, the administrator asked a court last month to investigate whether a hospital where Clark lived should have to give back a $6 million painting by French pre-Impressionist Edouard Manet and whether the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington should have to return $250,000.

While clashes over who got what and how during someone’s lifetime crop up in many will fights, the staggering size, two-decade time frame and uncommon circumstances distinguish the dispute surrounding Clark’s gifts.

A court likely will have to reconstruct the intentions and mental state of an eccentric woman who died last year at 104, and discern whether manipulation or gratitude was behind the gift-giving. Another issue is how well Clark was advised by her lawyer and her accountant. Both have come under scrutiny for their management of her affairs.

“It’s like piecing together a puzzle or a mystery,” says Laura Stegossi, a Philadelphia estate lawyer who isn’t connected to the Clark case.

The public administrator’s court papers portray a frail, secluded Clark exploited by a scheming retinue. But recipients say Clark was a generous, independent-minded woman who did exactly what she wanted in enriching people around her.

A separate fight is roiling over what will ultimately become of Clark’s fortune. The last will she apparently signed, in April 2005, leaves most of her money to charity, with a more than $30 million bequest to her private nurse. Another will, signed six weeks earlier, left her estate mostly to about 20 great-nieces and great-nephews. They are challenging the latest will.

A daughter of a Montana senator who amassed his Gilded Age wealth mining copper, building railroads and founding Las Vegas, the childless, briefly married Clark owned the largest residence on Fifth Avenue and mansions in California and Connecticut. But the last 20 years of her life, she voluntarily spent in two Manhattan hospitals.

She was hospitalized in 1991 after a friend sent a doctor to see her. The physician found a 75-pound octogenarian in a disheveled apartment illuminated by a single candle, her face ravaged by skin cancer, a recent court filing says .

Clark was in better health by 1996, talking with her staff and involved in handling her affairs but still “shy and reticent, avoiding most people,” though she exchanged letters with friends and relatives, Dr. Henry Singman wrote. She was unwilling to go home, even when he urged her to.

Clark paid the hospital $300,000 to $400,000 a year to care for her and hired private nurses and doctors, according to court documents. In addition, she rewarded members of her inner circle beyond their salaries.

In the quarter-century before her hospitalization, she averaged less than $40,000 a year in taxable gifts. That amount shot up afterward, the public administrator said in a May 22 court filing.

Private nurse Hadassah Peri made a salary that reached $131,000 a year, and she got roughly $28 million in real estate, jewelry, checks and other gifts, the public administrator said. Ms. Peri’s family also received another $3 million. A handful of other nurses and doctors got more than $4 million among them, and Clark even paid Dr. Singman’s malpractice insurance for a few years, according to the public administrator.

Accountant Irving Kamsler got $435,000 in gifts; attorney Wallace Bock got $60,000 plus the emotional payoff of shepherding a more than $1.8 million contribution from Clark for a security system for the Israeli settlement where his daughter lives.

A judge suspended Mr. Bock and Mr. Kamsler from overseeing Clark’s estate in December, after the public administrator said the two had underpaid her gift taxes by tens of millions of dollars; Mr. Kamsler resigned days before being ousted.

Neither man has been charged with a crime, and both have denied any wrongdoing.

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