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Folk Art Museum Addresses the Esmerian Mess (UPDATED)


Susan Flamm, PR director of the American Folk Art Museum, today responded to my questions about how reversals and lawsuits involving the museum’s major benefactor, Ralph Esmerian, may affect the museum and its collection.

Flamm wrote:

Ralph Esmerian has been a generous benefactor of the American Folk Art Museum for more than 30 years. Through the museum’s exhibitions, publications and scholarship, the public has had access to the more than 400 outstanding works of American folk art that constitute the collection Ralph assembled and promised in 2001 to give to the museum.

In 2005, Ralph transferred ownership of 50% of his collection to the museum; he retains full ownership of the remainder of the collection, including “The Peaceable Kingdom.”

Since the arrival of Maria Ann Conelli as the museum’s director in 2005, we have established written collections management policies and other guidelines to further professionalize our own museum practice and to bring greater clarity to the museum’s relationship with collectors and donors.

Clarity is evidently needed, since Hicks’ “The Peaceable Kingdom,” promised to the museum, was recently sent by the legally beleaguered Esmerian to Sotheby’s for private sale. Flamm noted that “promised gifts are just that—a reflection of a donor’s intention, not a legally binding contract. We rely on our donors to fulfill their pledges to the museum.”

It now looks like the museum’s catalogue, “American Radiance: The Ralph Esmerian Gift to the American Folk Art Museum” (above) should have been titled, “The Ralph Esmerian Promised but Not-Necessarily-Perfected Gift.”

Flamm added:

To our knowledge, no other works promised to the museum by Ralph have been pledged as collateral. Of the ten works listed as collateral by the Maine Antique Digest, eight are owned outright by the museum and therefore cannot be collateralized. They were deeded to the museum in 2005.

Erastus Salisbury Field‘s “Portrait of a Young Man,” which David Hewett of MAD reported was listed in court papers as having been “delivered to and received by Christie’s as collateral,” has in fact, according to Flamm, “been deeded to the museum.”

UPDATE: After this was posted, Hewitt pointed out that MAD had not itself listed the 10 works as collateral, as Flamm’s quote suggests; they were listed in the court papers, which were quoted by Hewitt in his article.

Christie’s would not comment on this tangled situation.

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