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Esmerian Bankruptcy Deal: American Folk Art Museum May Get to Keep 53 of 263 Works Promised by Disgraced Donor

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Spread the News: “Newsboy Show Figure,” c. 1880, Eastern or Midwestern United States, Collection of the American Folk Art Museum, promised gift of Ralph Esmerian
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

The American Folk Art Museum’s previously preeminent donor and former chairman, the criminally convicted jewelry mogul Ralph Esmerian, made a lot of promises he couldn’t keep.

When I visited AFAM’s Compass: Folk Art in Four Directions (to Feb. 3) at the South Street Seaport Museum last August, I was surprised to see so many objects (including the one above) bearing the credit, “Collection of the American Folk Art Museum, Promised gift of Ralph Esmerian.” I knew that the collector thus credited had no more credit, having gone bankrupt and been sentenced in July 2011 to six years in jail for “liv[ing} a life of fraud and deceit on a massive scale" (in the words of U.S. District Court Judge Denise Cote). So I wondered whether he actually could make good on his many "promised gifts" displayed in "Compass."

Now we may have the answer.

According to the American Folk Art Museum's press release, which hit my inbox yesterday evening, some 53 of 263 works promised by Esmerian and currently held by AFAM may be able to keep the label, "Collection of the American Folk Art Museum."

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Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

There's been no announcement yet of which works would be retained. AFAM's press release states:

The trustee in the bankruptcy cases of Ralph Esmerian and R. Esmerian Inc. today filed a motion asking the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York to approve a settlement agreement between the Esmerian bankruptcy estates and the American Folk Art Museum to resolve the matter of some 263 works of art previously promised to the Museum by Mr. Esmerian.

The agreement, which is subject to court approval, provides that the Museum will have free and clear title to 53 outstanding works of art which will enhance its collection and support its educational mission. The works to be retained have been specifically identified by the Museum for their distinctive contribution to its collection and include superb examples of traditional folk art in such media as portraits, needleworks, fraktur, sculpture, pottery, and scrimshaw, among other forms.

The other 210 formerly promised works, subject to the court's approval, would "most likely be sold at auction to settle other bankruptcy estate claims," according to AFAM.

Here, as seen at "Compass," is a case full of Esmerian's promised benefactions, including (left to right) a doll cradle, sewing box, box with two figures, and footstool, all with scrimshaw decoration. On the wall behind them (top to bottom) are a walking stick, riding crop and pointer, all fashioned from whale ivory.

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Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

One of the works that AFAM particularly hopes to receive under the settlement is this painting, also in "Compass":

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"Situation of America," 1848, artist unidentified, New York, oil on wood panel, Collection American Folk Art Museum, Promised gift of Ralph Esmerian
Photo courtesy of American Folk Art Museum

Some 65 gifts to AFAM from Esmerian were consummated while he still had the ability to do so. The most celebrated is the work on the left, as installed on loan to the Metropolitan Museum:

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Left: Ammi Phillips, "Girl in Red Dress with Cat and Dog," 1834-36, American Folk Art Museum, gift of the Siegman Trust, Ralph Esmerian, trustee
Right, by same artist: "Mrs. Mayer and Daughter," 1835-40, Metropolitan Museum
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

So how's the formerly financially endangered museum (whose fortunes were closely tied to Esmerian's) making out, in the wake of its having defaulted on its construction bonds for its midtown headquarters, sold that Tod Williams Billie Tsien-designed building to the neighboring Museum of Modern Art, and settled into its smaller former satellite facility near Lincoln Center?

The press release enumerates some encouraging signs of progress:

[AFAM] has preserved its collection intact and undertaken a dynamic exhibition schedule; it has expanded its board of trustees and hired Dr. Anne-Imelda Radice [my link, not theirs] as its new executive director. The museum is operating with a balanced budget [emphasis added], primarily due to the largesse of one of its most loyal and dedicated trustees, Joyce Cowin, and other trustees and friends who made pledges to help ensure the museum’s future.

The museum’s coffers were further bolstered by a generous bequest to support its exhibitions from the late David Davies, a trustee of the Museum, and a gift from his partner Jack Weeden.

In her December letter posted on AFAM’s website, director Radice details the museum’s future exhibition plans, including the William Matthew Prior retrospective that I favorably reviewed in the Wall Street Journal last summer.

But perhaps Radice’s most surprising revelation about AFAM’s progress is its connection to next year’s Venice Biennale for cutting-edge art:

A monumental artwork in the American Folk Art Museum collection is the inspiration for the next Venice Biennale. The 55th installation of the international contemporary art exhibition, which takes place June 1-Nov. 24, 2013, is titled “The Encyclopedic Palace” after the 1950s eleven-foot-high architectural model of the same name by Marino Auriti (1891-1980).

The self-taught Italian-American artist envisioned (and patented) his Encyclopedic Palace as a
museum in which all worldly knowledge would be documented, preserved, and exhibited. We are thrilled to be at the center of the Biennale (anticipated attendance: 400,000) and honored by artistic director Massimiliano Gioni‘s recognition of the museum and all that we have to offer.

That’s an intriguing choice as a signature work for the Biennale, and also a nice gesture by the widely respected associate director of the New Museum in calling international attention to another New York museum in need of a higher profile.

Will any more folk art make it into Massimiliano’s Mix?

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