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.
Nonetheless, what the diaries lack in emotional richness, they make up in detail, and they leave a trail by which to track Lucas' lifelong love affair with art.
Born in 1824, George Lucas was the seventh son of Fielding Lucas Jr., who owned the Baltimore publishing and stationery firm that is now called Lucas Bros. The father, a civic activist who raised funds to build Baltimore's Washington Monument, was a founder of the Maryland Institute.
The young Lucas, who studied at St. Mary's College and spent two years as a West Point cadet, became a civil engineer.
After moving to New York in 1853, he began to dabble in the art world, buying works for Baltimore friends. Three years later, after the deaths of his father and a beloved older brother, Lucas returned home.
In 1857, perhaps bored, he set sail for Europe at the age of 33. He settled in Paris and lived as a gentleman on a modest annuity from his father's estate.
Legend has it, Dr. Randall said, that Lucas was so seasick that he vowed never to make the trans-Atlantic crossing again -- and didn't.
But maybe he simply enjoyed life abroad: In the 1800s, Paris was the place to be for art lovers.
"Every artist who aspired to get beyond their hometown went to Paris. They went to the great museums and galleries, and painted from life. Paris was the place they went to get insights into what was most important in art and be stimulated," said Sinclair Hitchings, keeper of prints at the Boston Public Library.
Besides, within a year of arriving in Paris, Lucas had met the
24-year-old woman who was to be his mistress until her death in June 1909.
It was a discreet relationship. Lucas referred to his mistress in his diaries only as "M." Dr. Randall, the Walters' curator of manuscripts and rare books, discovered the woman's full name, Octavie Josephine Marchand, only by digging through dusty Parisian records. When Lucas met "M," she was separated from her husband, Manuel de Macedo-Carvalho, of whom little is known, and had a 3-year-old son, Eugene.
Lucas, a tall, bearded man who wore a silk top hat, cut a --ing figure. He frequented galleries and art auctions, buying on 5 percent commission for major collectors such as William and Henry Walters, Samuel Putnam Avery and William H. Vanderbilt. He befriended artists such as Antoine-Louis Barye, Mary Cassatt and James Abbott McNeill Whistler.
He largely passed up the new wave of Impressionist work and, as a result, his collection was out of fashion for much of this century. After the 1911 exhibition at the Maryland Institute, there was no major Lucas Collection show until one held in 1965 at the BMA.
Lucas helped shape the Walters collection, making hundreds of purchases for father William and son Henry, and is credited with introducing William Walters to Barye, whose sculptures are displayed in the Walters, at the BMA and on Mount Vernon Place.
The art dealer saw no member of his own family until his niece Bertha visited in 1896, but he didn't forget Baltimore. He performed time-consuming favors for old, hometown friends, overseeing commissions on their behalf, shipping out food packages, acting as Parisian tour guide and offering dinner parties (to which his French mistress was generally not invited).
Unlike many of his clients, Lucas wasn't wealthy. He accepted no fees from artists and lived thriftily in a five-room apartment facing the Arc de Triomphe, for which he paid about 800 francs a year in rent -- about the cost of eight fine wool suits, Dr. Randall wrote.
He also paid for his mistress' apartment across the hall, and they shared a servant. Cooking for both households was done in Lucas' apartment because "M's" kitchen was crammed with his paintings, prints and etchings by Corot, Daumier, Daubigny and others.
Housebound in his final years, Lucas bobbed in the sea of art he had collected. His niece Bertha told a reporter that her uncle "would have her uncover a Corot and brace it up on a chair where he could re-examine it, finding room for it in the overcrowded room by the simple expedient of sticking some other painting under the sofa."
Elizabeth Pennell, a Whistler biographer who visited Lucas' apartment in 1904, wrote: "He was then 80 -- like a prophet with his white beard, and in his long grey soft flannel coat and grey skull cap, sitting in a fairly small room, delightfully littered with his collections."
The great fire
At the time of the Pennell visit, word had just arrived about the Baltimore fire.
"He showed me the map of Baltimore to explain and for awhile could talk of nothing else," she wrote.
As Lucas grew old, his thoughts evidently turned more and more to Baltimore and the fate of his collection.
In the end, the fire provided a solution. In spring 1904, on a visit to Paris, Henry Walters told Lucas of plans for a new, fireproof Institute with a spacious exhibition gallery.
The Institute's Mount Royal building, completed in 1907, was probably the only suitable place in Baltimore then for the Lucas Collection. The Walters Art Gallery's Italian Renaissance-style palazzo on Charles Street was not completed until 1909. It was a private gallery filled with the Walters collection and open to the public sporadically. The Baltimore Museum of Art was not founded until 1914.
Lucas apparently made up his mind by 1905 to leave his collection to Henry Walters, who would, in turn, give it to the Institute.
In a March 1905 letter, Walters reassured the older man about the plans for his collection.
"I do not think you need feel disturbed about the value of your things in connection with that institution," Walters wrote. "They will be practically the only things they will have of any value and real merit. . . . it will be many a day before they will have such a collection as yours from any other source."
Lucas fretted about the bequest. Because "M's" apartment was registered in her name, her son Eugene believed that he should receive any art stored there. Lucas drew wills in both English and French to ensure that Eugene, who inherited Lucas' country house on the Seine, wouldn't get any part of the collection.
He also prepared for the transfer of his huge art inventory. He compiled a 73-page catalog and began to label each work with biographical data and news clippings about its creator. But at his death on Dec. 16, 1909, the meticulous art lover from Baltimore was nowhere near finishing the task.
The key document
On May 9, 1910, Walters gave the Lucas Collection to the Maryland Institute by means of a letter from Michael Jenkins, his lawyer (and donor of the land for the Institute's building).
The three-paragraph letter will be the key document at issue when a judge decides whether the Institute has the right to sell the Lucas Collection, law professors say.
The letter said Walters donated the collection "in order that it may serve as a continuing example and incentive to earnest ambitious effort of Art Students in your care." It added that Lucas wanted his collection "placed in your charge to be dedicated to sincere art education in his native city."
"Question No. 1 is: Is it an outright gift or a gift in trust by Henry Walters to the Maryland Institute?" said Garrett Power, a University of Maryland law professor.
"If it is an outright gift, the Institute board has unfettered discretion. If it is a gift in trust, the judge must determine what the trust is and whether the trust terms can be overridden because of a change in circumstances over time," he said.
A judge could order, for example, that while the Institute may sell the collection, the artworks must remain in Baltimore or be sold to a buyer that would keep them on public display. The Institute has not said how or when the collection would be sold.
Mr. Power said a "general presumption" in property law favors the free exchange of goods. He said the 1910 letter could be interpreted as "indicating a preference as to how the Institute was to use the property, but not effectively limiting their ability to exchange it in the future."
But Joan B. Ellsworth, a University of Baltimore law professor, said the letter's language, such as the phrases "continuing example" and "in your charge," might establish a trust.
1911 exhibition catalog
Early in 1911, the Institute held a major exhibition of Lucas paintings and bronzes. (The prints, prized by scholars because they offer a comprehensive view of 19th-century graphic art, remained uncataloged for decades.)
In the 1911 exhibition catalog, the Maryland Institute board stated that it accepted the collection in "trusteeship for the people of our city and state and for lovers and students of art."
Harry D. Shapiro, counsel for the Baltimore Museum of Art, said the statement clearly showed that a trust existed.
But Benjamin Rosenberg, the Institute's lawyer, said: "What's relevant is what the donor said, and we know what he said: 'Here it is, it's yours.' That's a broad paraphrase, but that's essentially what he said. If someone feels otherwise, that's why God created lawyers and judges."
The two museums must file their response to the Maryland Institute's lawsuit by April 3.
Though some community leaders and board members have privately expressed hope that the dispute might be settled amicably out of court, neither the Institute nor the museums show signs of wavering in their opinion.
The Institute might consider settling as long as it received market price for the collection, said Robert A. Shelton, chairman of the Maryland Institute's board of trustees.
"We believe it's our obligation to obtain full value for these resources so that we can utilize them for the educational mission the Institute," he said.
But the museums say they'll wait for a judge's decision.
"It's important to have the legal status settled," said the Walters' Dr. Vikan. "If the court decides that there is a trusteeship -- and I think there is -- then a solution involving any exchange of art for money would be violating that trusteeship. It would be a public trust being sold again to the public."
'No middle of the road'
As the dispute continues, hosts of fashionable Baltimore parties are learning to ban the Lucas Collection as a topic of conversation. A husband and wife have found themselves sitting on opposing boards of trustees. One fund-raiser for the arts, Fredye Wright Gross, sat on both Institute and BMA boards, but resigned recently from the museum board, citing conflict of interest.
"I think we will see the arts community look like Charles Manson has gone through it in a horrible sort of way," said Mr. Colwill, the antiques dealer. "This will be very divisive. People come down left or right on this. There's no middle of the road."
No matter how the legal dispute is resolved, Baltimore's cultural institutions aren't likely to agree on what George Lucas would have wanted for his collection.
"If Lucas were alive to tell you, I think he would be very interested in what the Institute has achieved in terms of young artists," Mr. Shelton said. "His contribution to that, if the endowment is added to [through sale of the Lucas Collection], would be significant and productive.
"I think he would be proud of that."
But Dr. Vikan believes Lucas' bequest created a bond between the collector and Baltimore, and a moral obligation on the Institute's part not to break that bond.
"The ethical issue transcends the legal issue; there's no question in my mind about that," he said. "Trusteeship is long-term, faceless, selfless, high-overhead, low-return. . . . We don't have any ownership. We come and go, trustees come and go, and the collection and its relation to the city and donor are transcendent."
LETTER FROM WALTERS' LAWYER
The following 1910 letter from Henry Walters' lawyer is a key document in the Baltimore Circuit Court case over the possible sale of the Lucas Collection.
Baltimore, May 9, 1910
To the Board of the Maryland Institute for the Promotion of the Mechanic Arts
Mr. Henry Walters has the pleasure to present to the Institute the collection of Art Works of the late George A. Lucas, a citizen of the United States, who died in Paris, on the 16th day of December 1909.
By the will of Mr. Lucas the collection was bequeathed to Mr. Walters, who, in accordance with the Testator's desire, delivers it to your Institution, in order that it may serve as a continuing example and incentive to earnest ambitious effort of Art Students in your care.
The collection includes a large number of pictures, sketches, engravings, etchings, bronzes and porcelains, acquired by Mr. Lucas during a sojourn of many years in Europe, all of rare excellence and first artistic merit, which he desired to have placed in your charge to be dedicated to sincere art education in his native city.
Yours very truly,
Atty. for Henry Walters