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Museums ask court to block art sale


A photo of a Mary Cassatt painting was incorrectly placed with an article about the Lucas Collection in Tuesday's Today section. The painting, "Portrait of a Young Woman in Black," is in the collection of the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University and is on extended loan to the Baltimore Museum of Art.

The Sun regrets the errors.

The Baltimore Museum of Art and the Walters Art Gallery yesterday asked that the Baltimore City Circuit Court prohibit the Maryland Institute, College of Art from selling the vast Lucas collection of paintings, prints and sculptures.

Even if the court allows the Maryland Institute to sell the nearly 20,000-piece collection, the two museums argue, the Institute should not be allowed to benefit from the sale because public money has been used to maintain the collection.

The museums' argument is a response to a request made in January by the Maryland Institute that the court grant it the right to sell all or part of the collection.

Though the Institute has been considering the sale of the collection at least since 1989, its action shocked the city's cultural community and plunged its members into heated debate.

The collection is considered one of the most important art bequests made in the city, along with the works Henry Walters left to the gallery that bears his name, and the modern art donated to the BMA by Etta and Claribel Cone.

Amassed by Baltimore native George A. Lucas, the art was given to the Maryland Institute in 1910 but has been on loan to the museums since 1933.

At the core of the collection are more than 18,000 French prints -- among them works by Edouard Manet, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Mary Cassatt and Eugene Delacroix. But Lucas also purchased scores of oil paintings and watercolors, Chinese and Japanese porcelain works and 140 bronze sculptures by 19th-century French artist Antoine-Louis Barye. Its estimated worth is no less than $7 million.

"The response represents the strong joint position of both the Walters and the Baltimore Museum of Art that we don't think that the Institute is entitled to sell the collection," said Adena Testa, chairwoman of the board of trustees at the Walters. "We are convinced that Mr. Lucas and Mr. Walters intended that the collection be kept intact in Baltimore City."

But Benjamin Rosenberg, the Institute's lawyer, said that the idea that the Institute should not profit from the sale "didn't sound logical."

Adding that he hadn't been able to read the museums' counterclaim fully, he said: "From what I have seen, the JTC museums agree that the issue should be decided by the courts and that they agree that the Institute owns the collection. We'll see what the courts say."

Before his death, George Lucas left a will stipulating that his art collection would be left to Henry Walters and that if Walters died before he did, it should go to the Maryland Institute. A year after Lucas died in 1909, Walters gave the collection to the Institute.

January, the Institute, a 970-student art college, asked the circuit court for a declaratory judgment giving it permission to sell all or part of the collection. In its complaint, the Institute said that Lucas' art no longer served any educational purpose at the school and that "the Trustees' responsibility to use [the Institute's] assets for art education require [the Institute] to sell all or part of the Lucas collection . . . "

The proceeds from the sale would be added to the school's $9 million endowment fund, the trustees said.

In their response filed yesterday, the museums agree that the Institute owns the art collection. However, they argue that Lucas, and subsequently Walters, intended that the collection be held intact and in Baltimore. To bolster that argument, they point to a three-paragraph letter written in 1910 by Walters' attorney. In the letter, the attorney gave the collection to the art college "in order that it may serve as a continuing example and incentive to earnest ambitious effort of Art Students in your care."

The BMA and the Walters also allege that by accepting the collection, the Maryland Institute accepted the responsibility of keeping the collection in trust for the public.

They cite a 1911 catalog published by the Institute in honor of an exhibit of the Lucas Collection. In it, the 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."

The museums state that the collection is used for educational purposes by the Institute, including a 14-week class that is a required course for all Institute print majors.

In addition to arguing that the Institute doesn't have the right to sell the collection, the museums filed a counterclaim in case the court decides the Institute can sell it.

The museums say that both the BMA and, to a lesser extent, the Walters have maintained, housed and insured the collection over the years using money from city, state and federal funds. Without the curatorial work performed by the museums, the value of the collection would be lessened, said Harry D. Shapiro, counsel for the BMA.

The museums cite a 1973 grant application to the National Endowment for the Arts, in which the Institute states that the purpose of the grant was "to make a unique national resource more available -- to the American public through exhibitions and as a teaching resource for artists and scholars," as evidence both that public funds were used to maintain the collection and that the collection has educational value.

Consequently, the museums argue, even if the Institute gains permission to sell any or all of the art works, it should not be allowed to benefit from that sale.

"The reason for the counterclaim is to make it clear that a lot of public money has been used to take care of the collection and that even if the collection were sold, the Institute should not benefit from the sale," said Ms. Testa.

"We really included that part as a disincentive for sale."

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