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1972. Kleinburg. Robert and Signe McMichael with artist A.Y. Jackson on his 90th birthday. Robert McMichael is the director of McMichael's Conservation Collection of Art. Credit: Erik Christensen / The Globe and Mail Neg. 72277-10

Erik Christensen/The Globe and Mail

The McMichael Canadian Art Collection's prolonged battle to recover more than $1-million that was looted from the estate of the gallery's founders has taken an unusual twist. The man accused of stealing the cash has suddenly died, raising more questions about how much money will ever be reclaimed.

"We haven't really talked about, or thought through, the economic impact yet," said Upkar Arora, chair of the collection's board of trustees. "But certainly this was a sad situation."

Geoffrey Zimmerman, a close friend of Robert and Signe McMichael, died last week at the age of 52. He left behind a wife, two children and a string of court orders requiring him to reimburse roughly $1.1-million he'd taken from the McMichael estate.

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Mr. Zimmerman, a former Crown prosecutor, had been a family confidant for 20 years. He met Mr. McMichael in the late 1980s, after moving to a property near Kleinberg, Ont., the gallery's home north of Toronto. Mr. Zimmerman shared Mr. McMichael's passion for Canadian art and he soon became a friend and adviser. He served on the gallery's board for 11 years and represented the couple during their legal battle with the Ontario government in the 1990s over management of the collection.

The McMichaels trusted Mr. Zimmerman so much they put him in charge of their $5-million estate, most of which was supposed to go to the gallery after their deaths. Mr. McMichael died in 2003 and his wife passed away four years later. They had no children and Mr. Zimmerman quickly took control of their affairs.

Instead of following the couple's intentions, Mr. Zimmerman started spending money on himself. He used estate cash to pay for trips, hotels, limousines, restaurant meals, bar tabs and repairs to his sailing boat. Court filings show Mr. Zimmerman charged nearly 1,000 personal expenses to the estate between 2003 and 2008 for everything from political donations and parking tickets to "compensation." Even mundane purchases such as groceries, gasoline, photocopying and highway tolls were charged to the estate. The expenses ranged from a $3,800 cellphone bill to 90 cents for a parking meter, court filings show.

The spending came to light shortly after Ms. McMichael died when two relatives, niece Penny Fenwick and her husband John, began asking questions. Ms. McMichael had given Mr. Zimmerman power of attorney over her affairs and control over a trust that contained most of her estate. After she died, the Fenwicks and the gallery won a court order removing Mr. Zimmerman from the trust and requiring him to account for the spending. Court filings show Mr. Zimmerman blocked their efforts repeatedly and failed to show up for several hearings. He later blamed his conduct on alcoholism and depression.

The legal battle appeared to be over last October when Mr. Justice George Strathy of the Ontario Superior Court ordered Mr. Zimmerman to repay an additional $390,000, bringing the total from previous orders to $1.1-million. Mr. Zimmerman's death means lawyers for the Fenwicks and the gallery will have to go after his estate for the cash.

"I'm not sure that [we]will recoup anything, but we'll see," Mr. Fenwick said. He added that he felt bad for Mr. Zimmerman's family. "They are innocent bystanders to what was going on. So they shouldn't be tarred by this, but unfortunately the association [with Mr. Zimmerman]inevitably does to a certain extent."

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