Sale of warship painting upsets donor; Foundation plans to use money in restoration of ship


Short of cash and long on oil paintings, the Constellation Foundation has turned a Montague Dawson oil painting from its collection into $38,000 in cash at Christie's auction house in New York.

The painting's donor learned of the sale this week and called it "contrary to the intent of the gift."

The 1954 painting -- once owned by former Maryland Gov. Theodore R. McKeldin -- shows the frigate USS Constellation in action against the French ship La Vengeance in 1800.

The winning bidder at an auction last week was an unnamed American art dealer. The gavel price exceeded the foundation's $32,000 minimum, or "reserve" price. But Christie's spokesman Terence Ryan said it fell short of the painting's $40,000 to $60,000 pre-sale estimate.

"We felt the painting would be better served if somebody else owned it, and we would be better off if we had the cash," said foundation chairwoman Gail Shawe.

The foundation is in the final months of a $9 million restoration of the 1854 sloop of war, successor to the 1797 frigate portrayed in the painting.

"We still need to raise the rest of the money," Shawe said. "So $38,000 is not something to sneeze at." Besides, the painting shows the original frigate, not the sloop of war the foundation is restoring. "It's the wrong ship," she said.

Nevertheless, the sale has upset Herbert Witz, president of the C. Markland Kelly Memorial Foundation in Baltimore. His philanthropy purchased the painting from the McKeldin estate for $50,000, Witz said, and donated it to the Constellation Foundation in the 1980s.

The painting was given "to be used for the educational program," said Witz. Had he known of plans to sell it, "we would have taken it back and given it to the Maryland Historical Society or someone else who would appreciate it."

Louis F. Linden, the Constellation Foundation's executive director until June, said the foundation researched the matter during his tenure, and concluded the painting was "an outright gift," with no prohibitions against its sale.

Linden called it "a tremendously overvalued piece of art" with several inaccuracies obvious to experienced sailors. The buyer in New York "probably paid too much," he said.

Abby Lattes, spokeswoman for the Maryland Historical Society, said the organization discussed acquiring the 36-inch-by-24-inch painting, but decided "it did not fill any gaps in our maritime collection."

Shawe said the foundation has no plans to sell other paintings or anything else from its collection. Artifacts from the ship belong to the Navy.

Montague Dawson was a well-known British ship portraitist who died in 1973. Other Dawsons at the Christie's auction Feb. 17 were valued from $30,000 to $120,000 before the sale.

The Constellation painting shows the frigate Constellation battling La Vengeance off the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe. The five-hour fight by moonlight, in February 1800, was part of the nearly forgotten "quasi-war" with France.

It was first sold in 1954 by the Frost and Reed Galleries in London. A U.S. dealer paid about $800, said gallery spokesman Tony Neville.

Pub Date: 2/26/99

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