It's sale is being contemplated by owner, Maryland Institute to build up its endowment

THE LUCAS COLLECTION: WHAT WOULD ITS LOSS MEAN?

October 14, 1990|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Sun Art Critic

If Baltimore were to hear that the Cone Collection, with its Matisses and Picassos and the rest, might be sold away from the city, art lovers here would be in an uproar.

Fortunately, we don't have to worry about that, because the terms of the Cone gift prohibit its sale. But we do have to worry about the possible sale of another crucial collection, and outside of the institutions involved there doesn't seem to be anything like the concern there ought to be. That may be because many people don't know just how important the Lucas collection is.

If it were sold out of the city by its owner, the Maryland Institute, College of Art, that sale would constitute the greatest loss in the history of the fine arts in Baltimore.

The collection of 19th century, largely French art amassed by art agent and connoisseur George A. Lucas amounts to some 20,000 works overall, including more than 18,000 prints, about 120 drawings, 75 sculptures (plus other works) by the French animalist sculptor Antoine-Louis Barye, 300 paintings, 72 artists' palettes and 50 Oriental porcelains. When Lucas died in 1909 he left the collection to Henry Walters, with the intention that Walters would present it to the Maryland Institute, which he did in 1910.

At that time there was no Baltimore Museum of Art, which wasn't founded until 1916 and didn't have its own building until 1929. By then it had become increasingly clear that the Institute couldn't properly house or care for the Lucas collection, and in 1933 it was placed on indefinite loan at the BMA, with the #F exception of a handful of works which went to the Walters.

In the intervening years, the BMA has recorded it, shown it, lent it, preserved it and built the museum's own collections around it. As one of many possible indications of its importance, the museum gets more requests from other institutions for loans from the Lucas collection than from any other collection save the Cone. In the past 15 years it has lent 300 Lucas objects.

Now the Institute is considering whether or not to sell the Lucas in whole or in part; if all of it were sold, estimates indicate it could bring up to $15 million to $20 million. Although Institute president Fred Lazarus refuses to speculate on how the money would be used, it could, for instance, vastly enlarge the school's meager $5.2 million endowment.

The Institute has been considering the matter for more than a year, and whatever its decision no one will be able say it took the matter lightly. A committee of its board of directors has been studying the collection, a descriptive report and an appraisal have been commissioned, legal advice has been sought, etc. These activities are still in progress, and Mr. Lazarus will not predict when a decision might be reached. But with the choice looming it's nonetheless appropriate to consider what the Lucas collection means to our institutions and to us.

After conversations with officials at the Institute, the BMA and the Walters, it seems to me that one can examine this body of works on several levels, like peeling away the layers of an onion, and on every level come to only one conclusion: It must stay here.

First, what were Lucas' intentions? This is the point on which the Institute soon expects a legal opinion about whether there is anything in Lucas' will and other extant documents to constitute a restriction on the collection. In a letter presenting the works to the school in 1910, for instance, Henry Walters' lawyer Michael Jenkins stated that the collection was given "in order that it may serve as a continuing example and incentive to earnest, ambitious art students in your care." But the letter went on to say that Mr. Lucas "desired to have [the collection] placed in your charge to be dedicated to sincere art education in his native city."

Did he intend the collection to be for the educational benefit of Institute students alone? If so, it may be that sale of the works to benefit the endowment would better serve those educational needs, since Mr. Lazarus says "its value in terms of our academic mission is minimal."

Or did Mr. Jenkins mean, in the second quoted statement, that Lucas left the collection also in a broader sense for the education of all Baltimoreans?

And those final words, "his native city" -- how much importance should be placed on them?

Lawyers will have to decide the legal questions, but let us go back and apply common sense in defining Lucas' intentions. Suppose he could be consulted today. Does anyone seriously think that after amassing his collection over half a century and after leaving it to his native city he would want it sold, and have our memory of him as a collector in effect annihilated? Is it likely that if he were asked the question today he would say, "Sure, go ahead and sell it"? Hardly.

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