THE LUCAS COLLECTION: WHAT WOULD ITS LOSS MEAN? It's sale is being contemplated by owner, Maryland Institute to build up its endowment


If Baltimore were to hear that the Cone Collection, with its Matisses and Picassos and the rest, might be sold away from the city, art lovers here would be in an uproar.

Fortunately, we don't have to worry about that, because the terms of the Cone gift prohibit its sale. But we do have to worry about the possible sale of another crucial collection, and outside of the institutions involved there doesn't seem to be anything like the concern there ought to be. That may be because many people don't know just how important the Lucas collection is.

If it were sold out of the city by its owner, the Maryland Institute, College of Art, that sale would constitute the greatest loss in the history of the fine arts in Baltimore.

The collection of 19th century, largely French art amassed by art agent and connoisseur George A. Lucas amounts to some 20,000 works overall, including more than 18,000 prints, about 120 drawings, 75 sculptures (plus other works) by the French animalist sculptor Antoine-Louis Barye, 300 paintings, 72 artists' palettes and 50 Oriental porcelains. When Lucas died in 1909 he left the collection to Henry Walters, with the intention that Walters would present it to the Maryland Institute, which he did in 1910.

At that time there was no Baltimore Museum of Art, which wasn't founded until 1916 and didn't have its own building until 1929. By then it had become increasingly clear that the Institute couldn't properly house or care for the Lucas collection, and in 1933 it was placed on indefinite loan at the BMA, with the #F exception of a handful of works which went to the Walters.

In the intervening years, the BMA has recorded it, shown it, lent it, preserved it and built the museum's own collections around it. As one of many possible indications of its importance, the museum gets more requests from other institutions for loans from the Lucas collection than from any other collection save the Cone. In the past 15 years it has lent 300 Lucas objects.

Now the Institute is considering whether or not to sell the Lucas in whole or in part; if all of it were sold, estimates indicate it could bring up to $15 million to $20 million. Although Institute president Fred Lazarus refuses to speculate on how the money would be used, it could, for instance, vastly enlarge the school's meager $5.2 million endowment.

The Institute has been considering the matter for more than a year, and whatever its decision no one will be able say it took the matter lightly. A committee of its board of directors has been studying the collection, a descriptive report and an appraisal have been commissioned, legal advice has been sought, etc. These activities are still in progress, and Mr. Lazarus will not predict when a decision might be reached. But with the choice looming it's nonetheless appropriate to consider what the Lucas collection means to our institutions and to us.

After conversations with officials at the Institute, the BMA and the Walters, it seems to me that one can examine this body of works on several levels, like peeling away the layers of an onion, and on every level come to only one conclusion: It must stay here.

First, what were Lucas' intentions? This is the point on which the Institute soon expects a legal opinion about whether there is anything in Lucas' will and other extant documents to constitute a restriction on the collection. In a letter presenting the works to the school in 1910, for instance, Henry Walters' lawyer Michael Jenkins stated that the collection was given "in order that it may serve as a continuing example and incentive to earnest, ambitious art students in your care." But the letter went on to say that Mr. Lucas "desired to have [the collection] placed in your charge to be dedicated to sincere art education in his native city."

Did he intend the collection to be for the educational benefit of Institute students alone? If so, it may be that sale of the works to benefit the endowment would better serve those educational needs, since Mr. Lazarus says "its value in terms of our academic mission is minimal."

Or did Mr. Jenkins mean, in the second quoted statement, that Lucas left the collection also in a broader sense for the education of all Baltimoreans?

And those final words, "his native city" -- how much importance should be placed on them?

Lawyers will have to decide the legal questions, but let us go back and apply common sense in defining Lucas' intentions. Suppose he could be consulted today. Does anyone seriously think that after amassing his collection over half a century and after leaving it to his native city he would want it sold, and have our memory of him as a collector in effect annihilated? Is it likely that if he were asked the question today he would say, "Sure, go ahead and sell it"? Hardly.

Well, then, what about selling part of the collection and keeping the rest in Mr. Lucas' name? If so, how do you divide it up? If you sell the rarely-if-ever-shown minor works and keep the major works, the sale probably won't bring in a sum of real significance. If on the other hand you sell the major works and keep the minor ones the latter become little more than a collection of references without the major works to refer to.

Suppose, however, you were to sell part of it based on type of work rather than quality. The collection breaks down into four natural categories: Prints and drawings, paintings (and palettes), the Barye works and Oriental works.

Here we get to the second level of consideration. Disregarding Mr. Lucas' intentions, is the collection important enough as an entity that it shouldn't be broken up?

Yes, for three reasons. First, it represents an extraordinary collector and a son of Baltimore who left his collection to his native city. Diminished by any part it would not represent him so well.

Second, Mr. Lucas formed an extremely focused collection concentrated almost exclusively on 19th century French art (with certain exceptions which complement that art, such as Whistler). As a collection, it reflects a desire to be as comprehensive within its bounds as possible, and to sacrifice one or another aspect of it would thus be to sacrifice the integrity of the whole. If someone collects medieval manuscripts and pop art, one part of the collection might be given up without hurting the other, but with Mr. Lucas' collection that is not so.

This is especially true because the collection is so thoroughly integrated. Suppose one were to sell the paintings. Among them, for example, one would be selling works by artists such as Braquemond, Lalanne, Adolphe Appian and others who are principally known as printmakers and who are represented in the Lucas prints -- to sell their paintings would diminish the possibilities of showing and studying these artists. One would also be selling paintings by Barye, which would diminish the importance of the Barye segment of the collection.

Finally, Lucas also collected much documentary evidence about the collection and the artists represented: reviews, letters from artists, biographical materials and such; many of the works are ,, inscribed to him. All of this is of scholarly interest so long as the collection remains intact. But it would have little or no significance if the collection were dispersed.

In short, the collection's parts so enhance one another that they add up to more than the whole so long as the collection is intact; to sell any part is to damage the rest.

But let us say that we don't care about Mr. Lucas as a collector, or about keeping the collection intact for its own sake. We only care about how each part of it adds to the sum of art in Baltimore and which of the parts, taken separately, are important enough to justify keeping them on their own merits.

And in this case the answer must be: all of them.

The 18,000-plus prints and drawings are not only the largest but the most renowned part of the Lucas collection. Furthermore, they form the core of the BMA's collection of some 85,000 prints and drawings -- one of the largest and most important in the United States. When the Lucas collection came to the museum in 1933 the BMA had few works of its own. Additions to the museum's holdings since then have complemented the Lucas core.

Examples: There are 103 Whistler works in the museum's collection and 150 in the Lucas collection, and according to Jay M. Fisher, BMA curator of prints and drawings, they are not duplicates. Specifically, the museum's Whistlers concentrate on the Venetian series and other later prints precisely because Lucas concentrates on the Thames series and other earlier prints. There are 13 Manet prints in the museum's collection and 76 in the Lucas collection. The museum has 45 prints and drawings by Mary Cassatt, of which 26 are in the Lucas collection. Then there are the huge Lucas holdings of the works of French printmakers who are less famous but have been receiving increased attention in recent years: 500 to 600 works by Charles Emile Jacque, 200 to 300 by Felix Buhot.

Many other examples could be cited to show that the Lucas collection constitutes the very heart of the museum's print and drawing holdings. Curators have purposely bought works to go with what's already there. With the Lucas collection, curator Fisher could state in a recent lecture that the museum offers probably the most comprehensive view of 19th century printmaking that exists. Without the Lucas collection, such a claim would be preposterous.

Could the paintings go? Leave aside how they relate to the rest of Lucas and consider how they relate to other collections in Baltimore. Take away the paintings and you seriously compromise the BMA's ability to tell the story of the pre-impressionist period in France, particularly of the Barbizon school and of Orientalism, works by such artists as Corot, Daubigny, Theodore Rousseau, Benjamin Constant, Prosper Marilhat. Some of these are represented by works elsewhere, but nowhere so well as in the Lucas collection. These works not only relate to later movements, such as Orientalism's influence on Matisse and the Barbizon school's influence on the impressionists, but there are direct influences in individual cases as well. The museum, for instance, owns works by Monet; in the Lucas collection are works by his teachers Jongkind and Boudin, whose scenes influenced Monet directly.

The Lucas paintings fit into the totality of 19th century painting at the Walters and the BMA like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle. In both the Lucas and the Walters collection are works by Jean-Leon Gerome, for instance. The Lucas early 19th century landscape by Georges Michel, at the Walters, fills a gap by acting as a bridge between Dutch 17th century landscape painting and the Barbizon school, as does the Lucas landscape by Francois Bonvin at the BMA. Bonvin's study of shoes is a nice companion to Van Gogh's study of shoes in the Cone collection. Van Gogh was influenced by the brush stroke of Adolphe Monticelli, whose rococo revival garden scene from the Lucas collection is at the Walters.

In sum, the Lucas paintings touch these institutions' other holdings at so many points that it would be impossible to remove them without leaving a large gap in Baltimore's extraordinary holdings of 19th century art.

What about the Baryes? Here the argument is a little different and a little more specialized. William Walters, Henry's father, was the greatest patron Antoine-Louis Barye ever had, and Lucas acted as agent between the two. Walters bought not only for himself but for the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, as head of its acquisitions committee. And Lucas bought Baryes for himself. As a result of the three collections, there are about 375 Barye sculptures in the Baltimore-Washington area; 75 of those are in the Lucas collection, which also contains Barye works in other media including paintings, watercolors and prints. That makes this area "the most important center for the study of the artist outside Paris," according to Sona Johnston, BMA curator of painting and sculpture before 1900.

The Lucas Baryes cannot be dispersed without deeply compromising that importance, aside from the fact that Barye represents one of Lucas' most consuming collecting interests.

That leaves the palettes and the porcelains, surely more significant as examples of Lucas' collecting interests than as money raisers; how much could they bring?

Against all arguments for keeping the collection intact, the Institute must balance its need for the money it could bring in. If the collection brought $20 million, it could quintuple the endowment with one stroke, and provide about $1 million a year in income, or about 8 percent of the current $12 million budget.

According to Mr. Lazarus, such a sum could be used to "enrich education" in such areas as "increased aid, faculty development, library expansion." But he added, "I don't know what it would be used for. It needs planning." In general, he indicated, it would enhance the school's standing. "We are minimally endowed and fragile; the fiscal stability of the Institute is perceived as weak." By comparison, the Rhode Island School of Design's endowment is $50 million, he pointed out.

So the millions that sale of the Lucas collection could bring in is understandably a major consideration for the Institute. But to acquire those millions by causing so great a loss to Baltimore, or to dispose of even a part of a collection that for many reasons deeply deserves to survive intact in this community -- that would surely be an act that Baltimore could neither forget nor forgive.

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