Ruling lets BMA press part of its Lucas suit

April 25, 1996|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,SUN STAFF

A Baltimore circuit court judge yesterday ruled that the Baltimore Museum of Art may press in court some of its claims that the Maryland Institute, College of Art will profit unfairly if allowed to keep all the money earned by the sale of its famous Lucas Collection.

The judge's opinion is the latest development in a 15-month-long legal tussle among the city's three largest cultural institutions. At issue is the future of a vast art collection owned by the Institute, but which has been on loan for more than six decades to the BMA and the Walters Art Gallery.

The opinion, written by Circuit Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan, means the legal fight advances to a trial, scheduled for May 13.

Both sides declared the ruling their victory and vowed not to give up the fight.

"With regard to the paintings and drawings, Judge Kaplan has limited our claim to unjust enrichment," says Arnold Lehman, director of the BMA. "However, we still have a right to seek compensation for our efforts [to care for the art], which have significantly increased the value of the collection.

"The museums are pressing forward with the case."

However, says Fred Lazarus IV, president of the Institute, administrators of the Maryland Institute "are confident that [they] will prevail on the balance of the issues."

The legal dispute began in January 1995, when the Institute asked the circuit court to declare it has the right to sell the collection, which includes 18,000 prints, dozens of paintings, sculptures, letters and artists' palettes.

In September, the judge ruled that the Institute did have the right to sell all or part of its artworks. But the museums filed a countersuit in which they argued they should be reimbursed for curatorial and conservation work done on the art during six decades. (Although it still opposes the sale of the collection, the Walters last month withdrew its claim for reimbursement because it borrowed only five works of art.)

The BMA also argued that from 1976 until last year -- when the Institute filed its lawsuit -- it had no inkling that sale was under consideration. Judge Kaplan wrote yesterday in his opinion, which comes in response to a motion for summary judgment filed last month by the Institute, that the BMA may ask to be reimbursed for care of prints, sculptures, artists palettes and letters making up the bulk of the collection.

But, pointing to differences in the wording of 63-year-old resolutions drawn up by the boards of directors of both institutions describing the loan of the artworks, he added that the museum cannot seek reimbursement for caring for the many paintings that are included in the collection.

He also wrote that the BMA may try to argue in court that the Institute made promises that led the museum to believe the art collection would not be sold and would remain permanently housed in the museum.

Pub Date: 4/25/96

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