Donor of antiques feels museum slighted gifts

September 20, 1994|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,Sun Staff Writer

Betty Taussig was sure at least some of the 105 antiques and historical artifacts she donated to the Historic Annapolis Foundation would be displayed at one of its six museums.

Instead, the Annapolis woman was told last year that 39 items would be auctioned off and the rest -- with the exception of an 18th-century desk -- would be put in mothballs.

Mrs. Taussig, 73, and a distant relative of a deposed Colonial governor, wants her relics back.

She went to Anne Arundel Circuit Court in June 1993 to block the auction and recover the items, which include an 1850 Colt revolver, a 1780 musket and a letter written by an ancestor in 1792.

A court hearing scheduled for last Friday was canceled by lawyers for Historic Annapolis, who hoped a delay would soften Mrs. Taussig's resolve and get her to accept an out-of-court settlement.

But Mrs. Taussig said she wants her day in court.

"The whole issue needs a big airing, which they don't want," she said. "I think they want to shut me up."

Foundation officials acknowledge that they would like the matter resolved quietly.

"Our goal is to settle this, and to satisfy the museum and satisfy Mrs. Taussig," said Ann Fligsten, president of Historic Annapolis.

Mrs. Taussig said Friday that the foundation has offered to return the artifacts, except for the desk on display at the William Paca House, if she drops her suit.

Ms. Fligsten denied that and declined to discuss the offer because of negotiations. The foundation's board of directors will discuss the case Thursday, she said.

Foundation officials say that when Mrs. Taussig donated the items she signed papers acknowledging that they might not be displayed and could be sold.

"We never accept an item and make an agreement that says we have to keep it in perpetuity," said Ms. Fligsten. "We can't be someone's attic."

Selling off donated items is standard practice and a necessity for most museums, given the hundreds of artworks, antiques and artifacts donated each year and the limited space for display and storage, museum spokesmen said.

"You can't display everything you get. Museums aren't static, we're not just storehouses. We're dynamic institutions with changing missions and goals," said Howard White, director of public relations and marketing at the Walters Art Gallery.

But Mrs. Taussig said she was told when she contributed the items in the 1980s that they would be kept and preserved.

She said if she knew they were just going to be sold off, she would have done so herself.

"It's tragic really, but I feel that I'm doing this not just for myself, but for all the donors who have the same thing happen to them," she said.

Mrs. Taussig's Maryland roots date back to Gov. William Stone, a Colonial governor overthrown in 1649.

She said most of the artifacts belonged to Michael Jenifer Stone, a 19th-century physician and Mrs. Taussig's great-great grandfather. He lived in Aquasco, a village in Prince George's County about 40 miles south of Annapolis.

Ms. Fligsten said one problem with Mrs. Taussig's artifacts is that they don't fit in with the themes and time periods displayed at the foundation's museums in the Annapolis Historic District.

While most of Historic Annapolis is modeled after the Colonial period, most of Mrs. Taussig's artifacts are from the 19th century and Victorian times, she said.

Plans to turn a foundation-owned house on Prince George Street into a Victorian-era museum -- a more suitable place for Mrs. Taussig's artifacts -- fell through when money got tight. The house was put up for sale in November, Ms. Fligsten said.

"Unfortunately, they're just not the right time period. They're not Anne Arundel County and they're not Annapolis," she said.

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