Joseph R. Prevost, appraised goods for Customs Service

September 21, 1994|By Fred Rasmussen | Fred Rasmussen,Sun Staff Writer

Joseph Ross Prevost, who as chief appraiser of merchandise for the U.S. Customs Service in Baltimore ruled that paintings by a chimpanzee were taxable, died Saturday of heart failure at the Charlestown Retirement Community. He was 94.

His spent his entire career with the Customs Service here, beginning in 1922 and ending with his retirement in 1965. He was head of the examiners who determined the value of imported cargo for tax purposes.

In 1958, Arthur Watson, the director of the Baltimore Zoo, imported a dozen paintings by Congo, a chimpanzee at the London Zoo, for an art exhibition here. Mr. Prevost was asked to determine whether Congo's works were art and thus free of duty. His verdict was that they were not art by Customs standards and he set a tax of $6.00.

"Mr. J. Ross Prevost, the appraiser in charge at this moment of crisis in the cultural life of subhumankind, tried to be nice about it. He allowed as how the paintings probably would have sailed on through, as duty-free works, had officialdom not been aware of their zoological origins," said a 1958 Evening Sun editorial.

"If we didn't know they were produced by an animal, we would have thought they were good modern art," he told The Evening Sun in 1965.

Mr. Prevost was also an expert on antiques, which he had to authenticate for tax purposes. He was the official appraiser for furniture that was imported for the restoration of Williamsburg, Va.

"He once discovered that a Louis XIV chair was not authentic because it had a replacement piece of wood in the back and, therefore, was subject to duty," said a daughter, Charlotte A. Hurley of Fenwick Island, Del.

Born in Northwest Baltimore, Mr. Prevost attended city schools and at the age of 14 left Loyola High School to help support his family.

He enlisted in the Navy during World War I and served as yeoman first class aboard the troop transport Princess Matoika, a war prize taken from the North German Lloyd Line. After the war, he enlisted in the Coast Guard and was assigned to the Lighthouse Service until he joined the Customs Service in 1922.

A largely self-educated man, he learned to play the piano, enjoyed bridge and at the age of 94 was studying creative writing through Catonsville Community College's extension program.

He collected books on the maritime and railroad industries.

He married the former Katherine Marie Kennedy in 1928, and the couple settled on Buckingham Road in the Villa Nova section of Baltimore County. Mrs. Prevost died in 1983.

A Mass of Christian burial will be offered at 10 a.m. tomorrow at Our Lady of the Angels Chapel, Charlestown Retirement Community, 711 Maiden Choice Lane, Catonsville.

Other survivors include a son, Eugene Prevost of Centreville; two other daughters, Eleanor M. Doyle of Rocky Mount, N.C., and K. Rosalie Nelligan of Hampton, N.J.; 11 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

Memorial donations may be made to a favorite charity.

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