Brooklyn Museum Faces Conundrum Over Gift of Problematic Artwork

The Brooklyn Museum may have to spend more than a quarter of a million dollars a year to store artwork it doesn't want because of restrictions placed on the gift by a long-deceased donor, reports.

In 1932, New York City philanthropist Col. Michael Friedsam bequeathed 926 pieces of art to the museum — 229 of which turned out to be fakes, replicas, misattributed, or in too poor a condition to exhibit. In the decades since, the museum has been prevented from selling off, or deaccessioning, any part of the collection because the terms of the gift required it to first obtain approval from a surviving executor of Friedsam's estate, the last of whom died in 1962.

In December 2010, the museum filed a petition in Manhattan Surrogate Court for permission to deaccession the fakes, replicas, and misattributed pieces, arguing that if it cannot sell them, it will have to spend $400,000 to outfit an off-site warehouse and transport the artwork, plus $286,000 annually to rent the space and hire caretakers in order to remain accredited with the American Alliance of Museums (formerly the Association of American Museums). While the New York State attorney general's office supports the petition, reports, Judge Nora Anderson declined to adjudicate it, noting that Friedsam's will indicated that if the collection could not be kept together, the works should go to his brother-in-law and two friends. The judge further ruled that efforts should be made to find the brothers-in-law and friends' heirs and a court-appointed attorney assigned to represent their interests. The museum has yet to begin its search, according to the New York Times, as it confers with the attorney general's office as to how it should proceed.

Further complicating the situation are the museum's finances, reports. In an affidavit to the filing, Brooklyn Museum director Arnold Lehman said the 2008 financial crisis had hit the institution hard, with the value of its endowment falling 30 percent between 2007 and 2009, as corporations and individual donors reduced the size of their gifts and the city scaled back its funding. "The losses incurred during the financial crisis will continue to affect the museum's operating budget for years to come," added Lehman.

Patricia Cohen. "Brooklyn Museum Finds Some Problematic Gifts Can't Be Returned." New York Times 01/15/2013. James Fanelli. "Brooklyn Museum May Have to Pay Hundreds of Thousands to Store Fake Art." 01/07/2013.