Institute can sell the Lucas Collection But judge says school may owe museums for care over past 60 years; Valued at $10 million; BMA, Walters vow to appeal court's ruling


The future of an art collection considered one of Baltimore's greatest cultural treasures was put in doubt yesterday when a judge ruled that the Maryland Institute, College of Art may sell its vast Lucas Collection of printsbe for the institute to sell the collection -- a move intended to boost the school's endowment.

Before any sale, he said, the court must decide how much money, if any, the institute owes the Baltimore Museum of Art and the Walters Art Gallery for housing and caring for the Lucas Collection over the past 60 years.

Museum officials, who vigorously oppose the sale and vowed to appeal the ruling, say they would be owed "millions" -- a figure institute officials described as far too high. The collection is worth about $10 million, said Robert Shelton, chairman of the institute's board of trustees.

"I was quite confident that this was what the court would decide," said Mr. Shelton. "We feel that the decision is not about whether the collection should stay in Baltimore but as to whether the institute had an obligation to use its assets in a productive way."

Sale of the collection is tantamount to having "one of the legs of this community kicked out from under it," said BMA Director Arnold Lehman. "We were concerned when the Colts left Baltimore, we're concerned when corporations leave Baltimore, and this is exactly that same situation."

Amassed by Baltimore native George A. Lucas, the collection includes about 18,000 prints -- among them works by Edouard Manet, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Mary Cassatt and Eugene Delacroix -- as well as oil paintings, watercolors and sculptures.

Bequeathed in 1909

It was bequeathed in 1909 by Lucas to his friend, renowned Baltimorean Henry Walters. In 1910, Walters gave the collection to the Maryland Institute. In 1933, the institute lent the collection to the BMA. Later, several pieces were transferred to the Walters.

Loss of the collection would be a major blow to the museums, especially to the BMA, which for 60 years has built its print and drawing holdings around it.

"The potential sale of the Lucas Collection would seriously undermine the national and international prominence of the museum's collection as one of the foremost collections of 19th century French art in the country and, indeed, the world," Mr. Lehman said.

The three institutions have been embroiled in a court battle since January, when the Maryland Institute asked the court to grant it the right to sell all or part of the collection.

In April, the BMA and the Walters filed a response and counterclaim contesting the institute's right to sell any of the art works. The museums argued that Lucas and Walters intended that the collection be held intact and in Baltimore.

In addition, the museums said, when the institute accepted the Lucas Collection, it also accepted responsibility for keeping the collection in trust for the public. Even if the court allows the works to be sold, the institute should not profit because public money has been used to maintain the collection, they said.

Sales would bolster endowment

But the institute argued that neither Lucas nor Walters expressed a desire that the collection be preserved permanently in the city. Therefore, it said, the collection could be used to further the education of its students in whatever way the board of trustees deemed suitable. Money from the sale, it said, would be used to bolster the school's $9 million endowment.

For the most part, Judge Kaplan agreed with the institute.

"The law is clear," he wrote in his opinion. " this Court can only conclude that [the institute] received the gift free of any (P restriction upon its right to sell the collection if it deems proper."

But he said questions are raised by the museums' claim that the institute would be "unjustly enriched" by the sale of the &r; collection.

For example, did the efforts of the museums increase the value of the collection? Did the museums' care go beyond what was required in the original loan agreement? And, did the museums rely upon assurances from the institute that the collection would not be removed from its present locations?

A hearing to determine the answers to those questions -- as well as how much money the institute might owe the museums -- will be scheduled.

"The museums are entitled to be reimbursed for the increase in value of the collection, which is attributable to the efforts of the museums; in this the judge has agreed with us," said Harry D. Shapiro, a BMA board member and its lawyer. "Exhibitions, conservation, curatorial work -- all of these things that have taken place over the last 60 years make up a significant portion of the value."

He estimated that the curatorial work and exhibitions completed by the museums could add up to millions of dollars.

'Claim is very questionable'

The institute disagrees. "That claim is very questionable," Mr. Shelton said. The collection "was lent to them under an agreement, and the only thing they did was meet the terms of the agreement."

Despite yesterday's court decision, administrators at both museums said no plans have been made to buy the Lucas Collection. "I hope that bridge never comes, and certainly we are not there at the moment," said Gary Vikan, director of the Walters.

The BMA's Mr. Lehman said the museums do not plan to try to negotiate a settlement with the institute at this time. "I believe we have to explore the legal possibilities here," he said.

How the collection will be sold -- and whether it will remain together or sold as separate pieces -- is still undecided, Mr. Shelton said.

According to professionals consulted by the institute, the 18,000 prints are worth more if they remain together. But the rest of collection, such as the sculptures and oil paintings, might be worth more sold separately.

Open to museums' purchase

He added that the institute remains willing to talk to local museums about buying the collection.

"We have always been willing to talk to the museums about possible purchase in order that the collection might remain in Baltimore," Mr. Shelton said.

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