Dear Richard Madeley: My ex-wife sold an artwork that was a wedding gift from my uncle – I am livid

Man holding artwork giving cheque to woman
'I have learnt from our son that she has sold it for a five-figure sum' - Ron Number

Dear Richard

My wife and I split up, not acrimoniously – but not super-amicably either – five years ago. She stayed in the family home with our son, who I see regularly and with whom I am close; we divided our goods and chattels in a fairly ad hoc, pragmatic way.

I left a Japanese print hanging in the house. It was a wedding present from an uncle of mine; I liked it well enough, but I knew my ex-wife, who had studied in Japan, loved it, so it seemed right that she should have the enjoyment of it, and that it would pass in time to our son. We didn’t discuss it; it just stayed on the wall. However, I have learnt from our son that she has sold it for a five-figure sum, having been told by an art historian friend that it was older (and so more valuable) than we’d been told by my uncle.

I am really upset by this. If she’d needed the money I would have tried to find it or at least half of it. I realise it would be petty to ‘dock’ her maintenance (and would never do this if it was going to impact on our son), but the fact that we didn’t go round the house with a clipboard itemising and valuing everything cuts both ways. Should I make a fuss?

— Peter, via email

Dear Peter

I completely sympathise with your disappointment and annoyance over this. But I’m sorry to say it – just as you reap what you sow, you can’t reap what you don’t sow. And you didn’t make an itemised agreement over who owned what when you split. I rather respect you for that – in my opinion it’s far healthier (and generally less stressful) to conduct post-relationships on the basis of trust and good faith, rather than on suspicion and wariness. But that generosity of spirit carries risks.

Even though the print was a present from your uncle, it was a joint gift to you both, so you didn’t have exclusive rights over it. Nevertheless your ex should have consulted you before selling it.

I certainly wouldn’t ‘make a fuss’ about it, still less make any threats about maintenance. But I’d write her a cool note. Something along these lines:

‘Dear X, I really wish you’d consulted me before selling that print. Given the chance, I would have bought it from you at a fair price. It was a joint gift from my uncle and I left it in your care simply because I knew how much you liked and appreciated it. I never dreamed you’d sell it behind my back. I suppose what’s done is done. But you should know that I feel very let down.’

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