Near the end of his life, George A. Lucas -- a Baltimorean who spent five decades roaming the streets and studios of Paris in search of great art -- was haunted by one question: What would become of the nearly 19,000 prints, 300 paintings and 170 bronzes he had collected?
The octogenarian art dealer needed to find a suitable home for his enormous collection, and he wanted to draft an airtight will to keep it out of the clutches of his French mistress' son. Messages scrawled on bits of paper found tucked into his diaries and ledgers -- "What to do with collection" -- reflect his growing fears.
Before he died in December 1909, Lucas thought he had found the place for his collection: The Maryland Institute for the Promotion of the Mechanic Arts (now the Maryland Institute, College of Art), which had been destroyed in the great Baltimore fire of 1904 and was being rebuilt with fireproof materials on Mount Royal Avenue. In a will written two months before his death, Lucas bequeathed his art to Henry Walters, the renowned Baltimore collector and his friend of nearly 50 years, with the understanding that it would eventually go to the Institute.
Now, almost a century later, Lucas' question has resurfaced as three major Baltimore cultural institutions fight over the future of his art, generally considered to rank behind only the Walters and Cone collections as a city treasure. The Maryland Institute wants to sell the collection to bolster its $9 million endowment, raising fears that the collection will be broken up or taken out of Baltimore.
"What was Lucas thinking?" asked Gary K. Vikan, director of the Walters Art Gallery. "We need to set the clock back 85 years and act as if [he] were with us today."
The answer lies hidden in the few words, ambiguously expressed intentions and rich life of a man who has been dead nearly 86 years. Lucas' correspondence to Henry Walters has not survived. Lucas' diaries, a 1910 letter from Walters' lawyer and a little-known 1911 catalog of an Institute exhibition of Lucas' art all provide clues.
In a quest for legal answers, the Maryland Institute has asked the Baltimore Circuit Court to grant it the right to sell all or part of the Lucas Collection, arguing that it was a gift meant to benefit students. The worth of the collection has been estimated at no less than $7 million.
The Baltimore Museum of Art and the Walters Art Gallery, which have held the collection on loan from the Institute since 1933, vigorously oppose any sale as an assault on Baltimore's patrimony.
The museums say that the dispute raises questions not only of law but also of ethics. The BMA and the Walters insist that the Maryland Institute, having accepted the artworks, also accepted the responsibility of holding them in trust for the public.
The Institute, a 970-student art college on the east flank of Bolton Hill, maintains that its mission is different from a museum's and that the collection no longer serves the educational purpose that Lucas originally intended.
The case is expected to take months to complete, and no out-of-court settlement is in sight. Meanwhile, friendships are being strained in the overlapping circles that make up Baltimore's small arts community as people line up on either side of the issue.
"The main thing is that this little war -- and unfortunately that's what it is, the Baltimore arts community is having a war -- is really going to be detrimental to the whole," said movie director John Waters, a member of the BMA's board of trustees.
Stiles T. Colwill, an antiques dealer and interior decorating consultant who vehemently opposes any Lucas sale, said: "My impression is that everybody is waiting for it to go to court, which is very sad. . . . It comes back to the same nitty-gritty question: What was George Lucas' intent?"
Who was George Aloysius Lucas? Did he intend that his collection remain forever in Baltimore as an educational resource? Or would he have wanted the Maryland Institute to use it in whatever way best served its students?
Lucas was a shrewd but reticent man who left Baltimore in 1857 never to return alive, yet he maintained close ties with his native city and is buried here. He faithfully kept a diary for 56 years, recording everything from the price of a work by Camille Pissarro (20 francs plus a still life) to his housekeeper's wages (40 francs monthly), but he left much unsaid.
His entries were penciled in crabbed, vertical script in small, calf leather-bound booklets apparently designed to fit in a man's shirt pocket. He created his own peculiar shorthand: "BB," for example, meant bottle of beer; "Balt" or "Balt'e" meant Baltimore; and "triped" meant ate tripe. Clients, friends and lovers were described only by initials.
'A gentleman's gentleman'
"He was a gentleman's gentleman," said Lilian M. C. Randall, who painstakingly deciphered and edited "The Diary of George A. Lucas" (Princeton University Press, 1979).
"But there wasn't any outpouring of soul," she said.