For more than a decade, the family of C. C. Wang, a collector whose name graces a gallery at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, has been battling over a trove of classical Chinese paintings and scrolls that has been described as among the finest in the world.
Now, the feud has escalated. In the past month, two of Mr. Wang’s children, who have been fighting in Surrogate’s Court in Manhattan since his death in 2003 at 96, filed lawsuits in state and federal courts accusing each other of looting and deceit.
But beyond the family strife, a broader issue is dismaying Chinese-art experts for whom the Wang collection has long been a source of wonder.
Dozens, perhaps hundreds, of works from an estate once valued in court papers at more than $60 million have gone missing, including an 11th-century scroll, “The Procession of Taoist Immortals,” that is viewed in China as a national treasure.
“This is heartbreaking, and it is happening right here in the city,” said Laura B. Whitman, a specialist in Chinese art formerly with Sotheby’s and Christie’s, who used to visit Mr. Wang at his apartment in New York to view his collection.
Divining who rightfully owns these works, and who is to blame for the disappearance of so many of them, has consumed the family for more than a decade.
The case has become so complex, and so expensive, that the Surrogate’s Court has suspended discussing matters of inheritance until it can come up with a reliable inventory of what was initially in the collection to see if the estate will be able to pay lawyers and other creditors.
Among the few certainties at this point is that Mr. Wang demonstrated the ability to acquire objects of historical importance, objects that since his death have increased many times in value as the Chinese art market has boomed.
Born near Suzhou, China, in 1907, he moved to the United States during China’s political upheavals in 1949, settling in Manhattan, where he built a career teaching, consulting at Sotheby’s, and dealing in real estate and in art. He became the dean of the rarefied market for Chinese art in New York and was an accomplished artist in his own right. By the end of the 1990s, the Met had bought some 60 works that were once part of his collection and named a gallery in his honor.
Among the Met acquisitions was a colossal hanging scroll titled “Riverbank,” attributed to the 10th-century painter Dong Yuan, but which attracted its own controversy after some scholars declared it a 20th-century forgery.
Maxwell K. Hearn, chairman of the Met’s Asian art department, said Mr. Wang acquired much of his important collection early on, when the market for Chinese art didn’t exist.
“He saw their continued relevance as sources of artistic inspiration,” Mr. Hearn said. “Now, they have become enormously valuable, because people are recognizing their cultural significance and acknowledge him as a source of validation.”
Before his death, Mr. Wang left some works to his daughter Yien-Koo Wang King, now 79, and some to his son, Shou-Kung Wang, now 85, both of whom served during different periods as confidant and business agent to their father.
But they have battled over the legacy, particularly the validity of a 2000 will that listed Mrs. King as executor and of a competing will, drawn up shortly before Mr. Wang’s death, that named Shou-Kung Wang’s son, Andrew, as executor, and disinherited Mrs. King.
Amid the fighting, estimates differ widely about how many classical Chinese paintings were in Mr. Wang’s collection when he died, from about 240 to 438.
Together, since 2003, the son and daughter have surrendered more than 120 artworks to the estate for sale, but have also accused each other of hiding many more of the most valuable paintings in the United States, in China or elsewhere.
The Internal Revenue Service is seeking more than $20 million in estate taxes, based on its own inventory of paintings, real estate and other possessions at the time of death, though that fee is based on a valuation of some paintings that may well now be missing.
The tax bill and claims for lawyers’ fees so outweigh the value of the handful of remaining classical works held by the estate in a warehouse in New Jersey that the Surrogate’s Court decided it was not worth proceeding until a proper accounting can be made.
The latest legal actions are an effort to break the deadlock. In a filing in federal court in Manhattan last month, Mrs. King and her husband, Kenneth, said that her brother and his son had conspired to loot the estate through sham art sales and had lied about the whereabouts of works.
Mrs. King said in her filing that Shou-Kung Wang’s son, Andrew Wang, 53, who shares fiduciary duty for the estate with the public administrator of Surrogate’s Court, made up bogus addresses of buyers, and even, in one case, shipped $1.4 million worth of the art to his home in Shanghai.
The lawsuit also accuses the Wangs of giving conflicting accounts of the location of one work, “Album of Landscapes” by the 13th-century painter Ma Yuan. A decade ago, Shou-Kung Wang told the court that his father had given him the painting and it was in his possession.
But lawyers for Mrs. King have produced a 2011 television interview in China in which a collector there says he bought the painting from C. C. Wang’s family after his death, for what the lawyers say was more than $5.5 million.
Asked recently in court about the discrepancy, Andrew Wang said that his grandfather had in fact sold the painting shortly before he died. He said Shou-Kung Wang had believed that he still owned the painting at the time of his testimony because Andrew and C. C. Wang had concealed the sale.
A lawyer for Shou-Kung Wang and Andrew Wang, Carolyn Shields of Liu & Shields in Queens, denied Mrs. King’s allegations.
For their part, they argue in a lawsuit filed last week in State Supreme Court in Manhattan that it was the Kings who have diverted assets by hiding works in a warehouse in New York, transferring ownership of them to foreign corporations and selling them.
One of the few things the two sides agree on is that “The Procession of Taoist Immortals,” an ink-on-silk hand scroll that is one of the most important works in the collection, is missing.
Probably a sketch for a mural painting, it depicts a group of Taoist gods in intricate detail. Experts say it is an early and rare example from the Northern Song dynasty of a Taoist theme.
“It is of monumental significance,” said Stephen Little, a curator of Chinese art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Attributed to Wu Zongyuan, it is valued by experts at tens of millions of dollars.
In 2005, both sides put “Procession” in a Shanghai bank’s safe-deposit box. The box was to be opened again only in the presence of both sides.
Hearing reports that “Procession” had been seen outside the bank, Mrs. King demanded that Andrew Wang open the box to inspect the painting with her, but, according to her complaint, he defied a Chinese court order and refused to attend.
When the box was opened in 2009, the result was disappointing, she said. Instead of a treasure, the box contained a cheap, discolored print of the scroll. The theft was reported to the Shanghai police, who declined to investigate what they called a family matter, said a lawyer for the Kings, Sam P. Israel of Manhattan. Shou-Kung Wang and Andrew Wang said they were never told the box was going to be opened and suggest that Mrs. King somehow stole the scroll.
Five years later, its whereabouts remains unknown.
“To think that something like that is out there and is not being seen and preserved and appreciated by humanity is just sad,” Ms. Whitman said.