Plaintiff Michael Gruen commenced this action seeking a declaration that he is the rightful owner of a painting which he alleges his father Victor Gruen, now deceased, gave to him. He concedes that he has never had possession of the painting but asserts that his father made a valid gift of the title in 1963 reserving a life estate for himself. His father retained possession of the painting until he died in 1980. Defendant, plaintiff’s stepmother, has the painting now and has refused plaintiff’s requests that she turn it over to him. She contends that the purported gift was testamentary in nature and invalid insofar as the formalities of a will were not met or, alternatively, that a donor may not make a valid inter vivos gift of a chattel and retain a life estate with a complete right of possession. The defendant stepmother prevailed a trial, but on appeal the decision was reversed and Plaintiff Michael Gruen was ultimately $2,500,000 in damages representing the value of the painting, plus interest. It is from that award that defendant now appeals.
On April 1, 1963 the elder Gruen wrote a letter to plaintiff, then an undergraduate student at Harvard, stating that he was giving him the painting for his birthday, but that he wished to retain the possession of it for his lifetime. This letter is not in evidence, apparently because plaintiff destroyed it on instructions from his father. However, two substitute letters reads as follows: