Man who gave Brooklyn Museum restricted gifts in 1930s leaves no heirs, so Surrogate Court to decide outcome

February 5, 2013 By Charisma Miller Brooklyn Daily Eagle
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Like many noted and reputable institutions, the Brooklyn Museum relies, among other factors, on the generosities of donors and art collectors. Benefactors bequeath large art estates to the museums upon their death. These donations often come with strings attached, restrictions on how the gift of art is to be used.

What does an institution do when those restrictions are counter-intuitive to the museum’s purpose and objective? This is what the Brooklyn Museum is attempting to determine in a case involving a 1930s gift to the museum.

In 1931 Col. Michael Friedsam, a quartermaster general of the New York State Guard, gave a collection of art and collectibles to the Brooklyn Museum.  

“The gift of Col. Michael Friedsam was given to the museum as part of a charitable trust in 1931,” Sally Williams, the museum’s public information officer told the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.  “The requirement of the trust was that Friedsam’s collection be kept intact … kept together.”

As the New York Times reported, unfortunately for the museum, conservators there discovered that a quarter of his 926 works were not of museum quality, were misattributed or, in a few cases, were fakes.

“Most of the works are absolutely wonderful,” Williams noted. But, Williams continued, “as technology for examining works changes and advances we were able to determine some irregularities in the Friedsam collection.”

In general, when works of art in museum collections are found to be forgeries, a process of deaccession — a policy through which works are removed formally and permanently from a collection – takes place.  The Brooklyn Museum, however, does not have this option immediately available to it.  Since a condition of the Friedsam’s collection is that it remains intact, the museum cannot remove pieces, even if they are not of museum quality, without the permission of Friedsam’s heirs.

There is no one alive, however, to give permission. “The last surviving heir … trustee passed away 60 years ago,” said Williams.   The museum has now asked a judge in Brooklyn’s Surrogate’s Court to bypass the wishes of Col. Friedsam and allow it to remove the false items from the collection.

A painting sold by the Harvard Club of New York illustrates how slight — or better yet no — restrictions on gifts are often beneficial. In 1999, the Harvard Club sold an oil painting of John Singer Sargent for $12.5 million. The painting, “The Chess Game,” was donated to the Harvard Club with no discernible restrictions. When it was sold to an unidentified buyer the proceeds helped the Harvard Club bankroll its expansion project.

For the Brooklyn Museum, as its petition is pending in Surrogate’s Court, the museum is still required to incur the expense of the storing Friedsam’s collection, fakes and all.

If the Surrogate’s Court rules in the museum’s favor, the museum will sell off fake items in the Friedsam collection.  As Williams told the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, monies used from the sale or deaccession of the works will be put back into the museum and used to purchase more art.

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