Md. Institute to sell major art collection

January 31, 1995|By Holly Selby and John Dorsey | Holly Selby and John Dorsey,Sun Staff Writers

The Maryland Institute, College of Art shocked Baltimore's cultural community yesterday by announcing plans to sell a major art collection now on loan to the city's two largest museums.

Robert Shelton, chairman of the institute's board of trustees, said that after years of study the college had reluctantly decided it must boost its "modest" endowment by selling the collection, which includes a group of 19th-century French prints considered among the finest in the United States.

"We believe it is our fiduciary responsibility to use this -- and every other asset -- to further the educational mission of the institute," he said.

He declined to disclose the collection's appraised value.

Both the Baltimore Museum of Art and the Walters Art Gallery, which for more than half a century have housed the collection amassed by George A. Lucas, said yesterday that they will fight any attempt to sell it.

They fear that the collection will leave the city if sold. "Based upon what we have said and done in the past, we will vigorously oppose" the sale, said Harry D. Shapiro, a BMA board member and its lawyer.

The collection is considered one of the most important art bequests in city history -- along with the works Henry Walters left to the gallery that bear his name and the modern art donated to the BMA by Etta and Claribel Cone.

The heart of the collection is more than 18,000 French prints -- among them works by Edouard Manet, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Mary Cassatt and Eugene Delacroix.

It also includes scores of oil paintings and watercolors, a selection of Chinese and Japanese porcelain works, 1,500 books and 140 bronze sculptures by 19th-century French artist Antione-Louis Barye.

"The Lucas collection [of prints] is one of the greatest in the United States and it truly is something to be treasured," said Sinclair Hitchings, curator of prints at the Boston Public Library.

The institute took its first step toward a sale yesterday by asking a city Circuit Court judge to declare that the college has the right xTC sell the collection. A legal challenge is likely from the Baltimore Museum of Art and the Walters Art Gallery.

"I think this is a tragedy for the citizens of the state," said Constance R. Caplan, who chairs the BMA's board. "Baltimore has a rich cultural history and wonderful resources due to the generosity of our citizens, and it is wrong to dispose of them."

"I'm absolutely distressed and upset about it, and I'm in pretty broad company," said Walters director Gary Vikan. "It's the third great Baltimore collection -- the Walters, the Cone and the Lucas."

The Lucas collection was given to the institute in 1910 by Henry Walters, to whom it had been left by its collector, George A. Lucas.

Mr. Lucas, a native of Baltimore, moved to Paris in 1857 and lived there until his death in 1909. In addition to amassing his own collection, he acted as an agent for major collectors such as Henry Walters and his father, William.

The question of whether the collection can be sold will revolve around what Henry Walters intended when he gave it to the institute.

Before his death, Lucas left a will stipulating that his art collection would be left to Henry Walters, and that if Walters died before he did it should go to the Maryland Institute. A year after Lucas died, Walters decided to give the collection to the institute.

In a letter, written in 1910, Walters' lawyer states that Lucas wanted the collection to "serve as a continuing example and incentive" to young artists and to "be dedicated to sincere art education" in his native city.

The institute argues that Walters wanted his gift to be used to further the education of art students in whatever way the school deemed appropriate.

"If anyone knows how to make sure that a collection given to a museum would stay at the museum it's Henry Walters," said Benjamin Rosenberg, attorney for the institute. "That's not what he did -- he gave the collection to the institute."

The BMA and the Walters, however, believe that Henry Walters intended that the Lucas collection be preserved intact and be made available to the art students and art lovers as part of their education.

"The letter was clear that the collection was intended to be available to students as part of their education," said Adena Testa, who chairs the Walters' board. She added, however, that she had not had time to read the Circuit Court suit.

The institute kept the collection at its Mount Royal Avenue building until 1933, when the college's trustees decided they could not properly care for the works and loaned them to the BMA.

In 1944, five works -- including an important early painting by Camille Pissarro, "The Street at Louveciennes" -- were transferred to the Walters Art Gallery.

The institute has been considering the sale of the collection at least since 1989. In 1991, the BMA and the Walters issued a sharp objection to the possible sale in a report requested by the institute.

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