BMA strikes back for art Lucas Collection: Court papers filed by the Museum of Artallege Maryland Institute was "duplicitous" in its plan to sell the extensive artwork.

April 05, 1996|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,SUN STAFF

Covert strategies. Misleading statements by a college president. An inept art thief. These may sound like elements of a paperback mystery, but they're actually part of the latest exchange of accusations between three of the city's largest cultural institutions.

The Baltimore Museum of Art alleges that while it was spending money to maintain the Lucas Collection, the Maryland Institute, College of Art was quietly following a secret plan to sell the art works, according to papers recently filed in court. The BMA also argues that without its care, the famous collection would have fallen into disrepair.

The documents were filed in response to a motion for summary judgment filed last month by the Institute. And they're among the latest rounds fired in a yearlong battle in which the BMA and the Walters Art Gallery have sought to block the sale of the artworks, which they have housed for more than six decades.

From 1976 until last year -- when the Institute asked the city's circuit court to declare that it could sell the prints, paintings and sculptures -- the BMA claims that it had no inkling that sale was under consideration.

During those years, the documents say, the Institute acted in a "duplicitous" manner by allowing the art to remain on loan to the museum -- and under its care. Meanwhile, the papers assert, the college pursued its capital fund drive and waited for the art market to improve.

In its argument, the museum states that the Lucas Collection "would not exist today in any meaningful sense but for the efforts of the BMA over the past sixty-two years."

To bolster that claim, the court papers cite reports of incidents that occurred over several decades. Among them are:

A 1912 Institute record indicating that before the artworks were lent to the museum, they were stored in a room with a lawn mower, an ice cooler and lumber.

In 1966, approximately 50 Chinese porcelains -- part of the collection -- were discovered at the Institute. They were transferred to the BMA, where the rest of the art was housed.

In 1983, another 1,200 prints were discovered at the Institute. They were sent to the BMA.

In 1988, a former Institute student attempted to sell to the BMA 187 letters written by George A. Lucas to artists whose work he collected. "But for this fortuitous event, [the Institute] would never have known the letters had been stolen," say the documents.

The BMA argues that sale of the collection would unjustly enrich the Maryland Institute, and is requesting reimbursement for the care it gave the art. It's also asking that the matter be sent to trial.

Amassed by Lucas, the collection includes 18,000 prints, including works by Edouard Manet, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Mary Cassatt and Eugene Delacroix. Lucas bequeathed the art to Baltimorean Henry Walters. In 1910, Walters gave the collection to the art college.

In 1933, however, much of the collection was lent to the BMA. Later, several pieces were transferred to the Walters Art Gallery.

In January 1995, the Institute asked the court to declare that it could sell its vast collection and use the money as part of its endowment. Nine months later, Circuit Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan ruled in the Institute's favor.

The museums filed counterclaims asking to be reimbursed for expenses incurred while caring for the art for 62 years -- the issue now before the court. Last month, the Walters withdrew its claim to a monetary award because it borrowed only five works, although it still opposes the sale.

According to the BMA's documents, in 1976, William Finn, then-president of the Institute, suggested that the collection be sold. When his proposal set off a flurry of debate, the plan was scuttled.

Since then, BMA administrators maintain, they have been reassured by the Institute on more than one occasion that the notion of selling had been dropped.

"While the [Institute] President was telling the BMA what a wonderful job it was doing with the Collection, expressing gratitude, and proclaiming 'how fortunate we are to have the Collection' he was secretly writing to the chairman of the [Institute's] board -- 'I believe there are parts [of the collection] that can and should be sold," the documents say.

But College President Fred Lazarus IV disagrees, saying: "The [Institute's] board never took any position until it filed for summary judgment last January. The board's position was one that remained open until that time and to this day, I say the museum has done a good job taking care of the collection."

In 1993, say court documents filed by the BMA, the Institute hired Jackson Jackson & Wegner, a public relations firm with a reputation for "discretion," to develop a strategy for selling the artworks with the least amount of negative publicity possible.

In its report, the public relations firm warned the Institute to wait until its capital fund drive was over because sale of the collection might be controversial.

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