06/22/2010 10:20 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

When Love and Money Are at War

I was fascinated by William Glaberson's dramatic front page New York Times coverage of the battle between two of C.C. Wang's children over his formidable -- and newsworthy -- estate, said to be the greatest collection of ancient Chinese art in the West. C.C. Wang had already donated some 60 works to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and established the C.C. Wang Family Gallery. After the battle over the estate was joined, the word "family" may carry some irony.

The antecedents of the major explosion were set in place in 1949, when Wang chose two daughters to bring with him to America and left a son and daughter behind in China. The American children grew up with all the advantages; the children left behind suffered under Cultural Revolution; the son emigrated here some 30 years later. Unequal treatment gave the son reason to gripe and to feel he deserved restitution. His sister doesn't agree, and why should she? She did not experience what he suffered, and she isn't the one who abandoned him.

Today they are accusing each other of theft. Goes with the territory. I know a pair of sisters who stopped talking after their mother died because one of them took home (aka "stole") a favorite mirror. And another pair of sibs I know broke off communication over their father's gold key-chain and tiny penknife. Small isn't necessarily beautiful. All the old gripes surface after the funeral.

Mr. Wang seems to have vacillated about this son and daughter, alternatively favoring and exiling them. He may or may not have disinherited the son, who may or may not have stolen millions in art over the years. The brother and sister conspired together about their father's estate, while he was still alive -- and in the room.

While their story is glamorous, the arc of the Wang saga is not uncommon. I know a family whose dad owned a small restaurant in Maine. It wasn't worth much, but he, too, alternately hired and fired three children in rotation, and he disinherited all but one. The lawyer's fees bankrupted his tiny estate.

Large or small, magnificent or minuscule, division of the estate blows up in the face of unfairness, vacillation, and favoritism. None of this is necessary, of course.

Here's another way of doing it. I know a family of five brothers who came to America from Turkey several decades ago. They made decent lives for themselves, but they grew to mistrust and dislike each other. They kept in constant communication with their elderly mother who had stayed in their village. The men were united in one thing -- they loved and respected her. So, on her deathbed, she pled with each of her sons to make peace with the others. Her voice grew weak, but her desire was powerful.

Over time, one of the brothers told me, they softened their enmity and began to get together. The cousins loved each other, the tensions abated. Gradually, they rebuilt their family, honoring their mother's wishes.

Every estate has a material and a moral dimension. People get to make their fortunes and decide their legacy. The next time I walk by the Wang Family Gallery, though, I'm going to pause and wish that the father's genius had extended to an accurate appraisal of his children. That might have helped secure his legacy.