Art museum and Walters take strong stand against any Lucas Collection sale

December 13, 1991|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Sun Art Critic

The Baltimore Museum of Art and the Walters Art Gallery yesterday released a report strongly objecting to the possible sale of the Lucas collection of 19th century art, owned by the Maryland Institute, College of Art but on loan to the two museums since 1933.

A covering letter from the museums' board presidents to LeRoy Hoffberger, Institute board president, asserts the "impropriety of any disposition or sale of the Lucas Collection, in whole or in part, that results in its loss to our community." It says that such a sale would be a "grave moral and ethical, not to mention legal, violation" of the terms under which the collection was given to the Institute in 1910, and further says that in 1976 the Institute affirmed "that the collection would not be sold."

Institute president Fred Lazarus said yesterday he had not yet read the report, but asserted that the school never agreed not to sell the collection. On the 1976 occasion referred to, he said, then-president of the board Edwin Daniels had made such a proposal but the board never acted on it.

The Institute has been considering whether to sell all or part of the collection at least since 1989. But Mr. Hoffberger yesterday said that at present "we have in no way made a decision to dispose of the collection" and estimated that the decision-making process "could go on for another six months to a year."

The collection, amassed in the late 19th century by Baltimore-born art agent and connoisseur George A. Lucas, consists of some 15,000 prints, 300 paintings, 150 bronzes and other materials. In their report, the museums call it "one of the three most important . . . publicly held art collections" in the city and state, along with the Walters collection and the BMA's Cone collection. Mr Hoffberger said yesterday, "I don't disagree with that."

The Institute has had an appraisal of the collection but has not released a figure. The appraiser, William J. Tomlinson, said in April that a previous estimate of its value at $15 million to $20 million was "much too high."

At Mr. Lucas' death in 1909, he left the collection to his friend, the collector Henry Walters, who subsequently presented it to the Institute. The letter of presentation spoke of Mr. Lucas' desire that the collection "may serve as a continuing incentive and example" to art students and that it "be dedicated to sincere art education in his native city." On that basis the museums' report concludes that "any sale of any work of art from the Lucas Collection constitutes a fundamental abrogation of the terms and intent of the Walters gift."

While stopping short of predicting a lawsuit to keep the works here if the Institute should decide to sell, Walters board president Jay M. Wilson said yesterday that an earlier resolution by the Walters board "authorizes any action, including legal action."

Mr. Hoffberger said that the Institute has sought its own legal opinion, which "certainly gives us the feeling that the sale of the collection is a legal option."

In 1933 the Institute, without the resources to properly care for the works, placed it on extended loan to the BMA with the exception of five works that went to the Walters.

Earlier this year the art school issued a study which says that the collection is not used extensively by education institutions; it also says that the print collection "enjoys national status" but adds that with respect to other parts of the collection the Walters' collection offers "the same or very similar" opportunities for enjoyment of 19th century art. It is that study to which yesterday's report replies, though not by name, and makes the museums' strongest statement to date against the sale of any part of the collection.

It begins with a letter "to the citizens of Maryland" from J. Carter Brown, director of the National Gallery in Washington, stating that the collection is "recognized both nationally and internationally as a remarkably inclusive resource recording the progress of art in 19th century France." It helps to make Baltimore "one of the foremost centers for the study and appreciation of 19th century French art" and "dispersal of any part of this unique assemblage . . . would be a loss to art lovers everywhere."

The report itself emphasizes the time and money spent on the collection in the last 58 years by the BMA. Noting that much of the money has come from the city and other public sources, it asserts: "It would be an egregious waste of public assets to dispose of any part of a collection to which such substantial public funds have been committed for well over half a century."

The report also lists 76 exhibitions which the BMA has organized over the years making use of the Lucas collection.

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