Palm Beach real estate baron wants custody of shaving mugs in divorce

Forget the tony shops on Worth Avenue, the bars and restaurants in Delray Beach, the golf course in the Catskills or the office buildings and apartments in upstate New York.

One of the most contested properties in Burt and Lucille Handelsman’s estimated $550 million empire has nothing to do with expensive real estate. It’s the Palm Beach couple’s shaving mug collection.

Valued at more than $1 million, the mugs are up for grabs as a Palm Beach County judge tries to figure out how to divide the massive spoils of the couple’s nearly 70-year marriage that was officially dissolved when the month-long trial began on Feb. 5.

On Wednesday, 90-year-old Burt testified that not only was he the brains behind the real estate empire, but he also was the one who assembled the collection of more than 1,500 mugs and therefore should be allowed to keep it.

He acknowledged that 89-year-old Lucille, known as Lovey, bought him his first mug before they were married in 1948. But, he said, he was the one who combed antique shows across the country, looking for a particular kind of mug that commands top price because of its historic significance.

In court papers, Lucille said she has as much invested — both financially and emotionally — in the mugs as Burt. The collection, she said, should be divided so she and Burt can enjoy the mugs in their waning years and so she can eventually pass on her share of them to the couple’s three adult children, who have cut ties with their father even as they manage much of the real estate.

Burt insists breaking up the collection would destroy its value. “We have the finest collection in the United States,” he told Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Scott Suskauer. “To break it up would destroy history.”

The mugs are what are known as occupational mugs, he explained. Popular from about 1865 until just after World War I, the mugs depict the occupations of their owners.

For instance, Burt said he has one that shows a judge in a courtroom, listening to attorneys. Like the owners of other occupational mugs, the judge would leave his mug in his local barber shop to be used when he came in for his daily shave.

Burt said he created the Handelsman Family Foundation for the Preservation of American Antiques to protect the mugs in perpetuity. “They would stay in the foundation and we would find a way to fund it forever,” he said.

To illustrate how divisive the mugs are, Burt’s attorney Alan Kluger said he plans to call a mug appraiser to testify that the value of the mugs would be destroyed if they were divided between the couple.

In response, attorney Joel Weissman, who represents Lovey, countered that the mugs are part of Burt’s betrayal. In what Weissman described as a secret will, Burt bequeathed the mug collection to Fort Lauderdale lawyer Jane Rankin, a once trusted family legal advisor who, Lovey claims, stole her husband’s heart.

Burt, who testified earlier for two days, spent most of the day Wednesday on the stand, explaining how he assembled the far-flung real estate empire and identifying what property he believes he should be allowed to keep. He said he is particularly fond of land in downtown Delray Beach that is valued at $16.5 million.

One of the tracts, along Atlantic Avenue, houses the Blue Anchor pub. He said he and Lovey were walking down a street in London when the pub was going to be destroyed. Realizing its value, he said he immediately bought the pub and had it shipped to Delray Beach complete with its oak paneling and stained glass windows.

But he said all their property has nostalgic value, serving as a reminder of all the good he has accomplished. “I really believe I was responsible for changing Atlantic Avenue from a shooting gallery into what it is today,” he said of the downtown’s transformation since he began buying land there in the 1970s.

He gave Lovey no credit for his business success. “The only thing she’s ever done is to say, ‘We don’t need any more. We have plenty,’” he said.

In a blow to Burt’s case, the judge on Feb. 14 barred Burt’s attorneys from calling their own real estate appraiser to challenge one hired by Lovey’s attorneys because, Suskauer ruled, Burt’s attorneys had failed to share information with Lovey’s lawyers in a timely manner.

Since Kluger can’t call a professional appraiser to establish the value of the couple’s holdings, he said he would call his client, Burt, back to the stand before the trial is over next month to offer his opinion of the value.

While the couple agrees on much of the value, about $100 million is in dispute, said attorney Richard Segal, who also represents Burt.

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