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Divorce Law and the Lost Art of … Red Skleton?

Paul Fletcher//March 17, 1997

Divorce Law and the Lost Art of … Red Skleton?

Paul Fletcher//March 17, 1997

By Paul Fletcher, Publisher & Editor-in-Chief

Joe Theismann — the loquacious former Washington Redskins quarterback — is back in the Court of Appeals.

Okay, so it’s not often that celebrities end up in the law books here in the Old Dominion. Especially when they are spilling messy details about a divorce. But anyone who has followed Joe’s career knows that for him, romance is hardly a private thing (Just recall his gooey, high-profile courtship and later nasty break-up with Cathy Lee Crosby).

Anyway, Joe’s back, and he’s fighting mad that his ex-wife lost his Red Skelton painting.

No, it’s not a portrait of the famed comedian. It’s a painting by ol’ Freddie the Freeloader himself.

And it’s now a part of Virginia judicial history. Just call it “The Lost Art of Red Skelton.”

The Court of Appeals handed down a second decision in the divorce of Joe and Jeanne Theismann last week, a mop-up from the main divorce last year.

Perhaps Joe’s just making sure he stays ahead of fellow ex-Redskin John Riggins in the number of appellate decisions carrying his name. Riggo, you may recall, sued his ex-wife and her real estate agent for misappropriating his name in advertising to sell their marital home. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, where the Diesel won, and even got punitives. You can look it up–Town & Country Properties Inc. v. Riggins, 249 Va. 387 (1994).

For those of you who came in late, here’s a recap of what happened before Mr. “Rhymes with Heisman,” now a sportscaster, found himself on the losing end of a divorce petition.

In a move he now probably regrets as much as the interception he threw right before the half in the 1984 Super Bowl (the one that the Jokeland Raiders returned for a TD, the one that buried the Skins’ hopes of a second straight championship), Joe married a reporter for a Japanese newspaper after a whirlwind romance.

Then in a move he now probably regrets more than that INT tossed to the Raiders, Joe decided to retitle his Loudoun County farm and some investment accounts in his name and the name of the new Mrs. T. He bragged to her, and we quote, pretty close to verbatim, “Honey, I’ve just made you a millionaire!” Just imagine Joe’s exuberance on TV, and you’ll have the proper inflection.

Bad move. But Joe made several bad moves in a short stretch. Shortly thereafter, according to the Court of Appeals in its opinion, Joe started an affair with another woman. The new wife, Jeanne, found out about the affair and filed for divorce. She wanted a piece of Joe’s money, and he had about $4 million at the time. The trial court gave her an equitable distribution award of $950,000, even though the marriage had lasted only a few years. The award was based in part on Joe’s intent to give his wife a gift; his bragging about her being a millionaire was viewed as proof of his intentions.

The Court of Appeals sacked the ex-signal caller, affirming the hefty award in Theismann v. Theismann (VLW 096-7-465). He fared no better at the rehearing en banc, although he got four judges to see his side. Watching nearly a million bucks walk out the door, Joe may have figured that New York Giant Lawrence Taylor, who dealt Joe a career-ending injury in 1985, had been nicer to him.

But all that changed in the latest Theismann v. Theismann decision, an unpublished per curiam opinion released last Tuesday (VLW 097-7-164). Just call it payback time.

Seems Joe had a painting by Red Skelton that he valued highly–so highly that the divorce decree specifically stated that “the Red Skelton painting shall be transferred to [the husband].”

One big problem: Jeanne, who last had possession of the artwork, failed to return the painting and it was lost, according to the opinion. Joe asked the court to find her in contempt. The trial court did just that.

But the trial court also had to figure out damages for loss of the painting. Joe paid $13,750 for the artwork in 1992 and tried to sell it for $27,000 a year later.

But for equitable distribution, the trial judge put a price tag of $3,500 on it. At a hearing on the painting, Jeanne’s expert said it was worth $3,500, while Joe’s expert said it had a replacement value of $45,000. The judge ruled it was worth $5,000.

There may be a booming market in Red Skelton art, but the Court of Appeals affirmed the $5,000 figure that the trial court allowed, noting “[t]hat figure was well within the range of values supported by the credible evidence before the court.” Hmm, only $1,500 over the wife’s expert…guess $45K wasn’t too credible. And that’s almost $9K less than Joe paid for it… guess he just knew what he liked.

In addition to damages, the trial judge also socked Jeanne for the fees for Joe’s expert and his lawyer, to the tune of nearly $12,000. The appeals court summarily affirmed those awards, finding no abuse of discretion.

The moral of the story may be simply that paybacks are hell, or even simpler, don’t lose your ex-husband’s favorite possessions. Jeanne is now about $17,000 poorer as a result.

But given last year’s ED award, figure she can afford it.

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