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Charles-Francois Daubigny’s “A Bend in the River Oise” is one part of Col. Michael Friedsam’s bequest that the museum is keeping.

New York Times photos ,

The museum is trying to de-accession this portrait of Louis XI by Jean Fourquet.

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A delicate quandary for the Brooklyn Museum

  • Article by: PATRICIA COHEN New York Times
  • February 5, 2013 - 5:37 PM

The Brooklyn Museum seemed to have garnered a bonanza in 1932 when it received a large bequest from the estate of Col. Michael Friedsam, president of the elegant retail emporium B. Altman.

But eight decades later that cache of Dutch and Renaissance paintings, Chinese porcelains, jewelry and furniture has become something of a burden. A quarter of the 926 works have turned out to be fakes, misattributions or of poor quality, and the museum potentially faces a hefty bill to store the 229 pieces it no longer wants.

The obvious solution — to deaccession (to sell or give away) the relatively worthless items — has been blocked, however, by clauses in Friedsam’s will that require the museum to obtain permission from the estate’s executors. The holdup? The last executor died in 1962, said Francesca Lisk, the Brooklyn Museum’s general counsel.

“Most of the works are wonderful, and many are on display,” Lisk said. “But over the years it has been revealed many are not of museum quality.”

The Brooklyn Museum, aided by the New York state attorney general’s office, has been working to get around this roadblock. But one final hurdle has been set by a Manhattan Surrogate Court judge. Noting that the will specified that the art should go to the colonel’s brother-in-law and two friends if the collection was not kept together, Judge Nora Anderson told the museum in December 2011 that it must search for these three men’s descendants before she would rule. The museum has yet to begin looking as it confers with the attorney general’s office on how to proceed.

James Fanelli reported the museum’s conundrum last month in DNAinfo.com, a New York news site.

The problem of what to do with the unwanted items has arisen as the Brooklyn Museum tries to reclaim gallery space that has long been devoted to storage. When the museum accepted the Friedsam collection in the early 1930s, its sprawling Beaux-Arts building on the edge of Prospect Park had vast spaces to fill.

As officials explain in their court filing, the opposite problem now plagues the museum, which at one point had as many as 1.5 million objects, some of them inauthentic, trivial or no longer in keeping with its mission — like three battle-axes from Friedsam. The Brooklyn Museum, like many other institutions, regularly reviews its collection, taking new information, techniques and inventory into account.

If it is unable to reduce the number of works kept behind the scenes, the museum may have to rent additional storage space, which could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, Lisk said.

Shoving items willy-nilly into a closet is not an option. There are strict and often costly standards dictated by the Association of American Museums on how to conserve and store art.

Friedsam, a beloved civic leader and philanthropist, left the bulk of his estate, valued at $20 million in the ’30s, to public institutions. He did not specifically mention the Brooklyn Museum in his will, preferring that his vast collection of art, jewelry, rugs, furniture, ceramics, armaments and more find a permanent home at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. But according to an agreement that the executors worked out in 1931, the Met essentially was allowed to cherry-pick its favorites — a total of 472 items, according to Harold Holzer, a Met spokesman.

Holzer said that in the ’30s and ’40s the Met deaccessioned some items — 23 went back to the executors, who sent them to the Brooklyn Museum, and seven others were also returned to the executors — though he said he was unaware that any had been identified as fakes.

At the moment 88 works from the Friedsam collection are on display at the Met.

In Brooklyn, 25 Friedsam items are being exhibited. Whether any fakes from the collection had previously been displayed is unclear. Kevin Stayton, chief curator at the Brooklyn Museum, said in an e-mail, “At this point, it is not possible to reconstruct a positive timeline of exactly what was on view when in the early decades.”

The Met’s acquisitions from the estate, which included paintings by Rembrandt, Titian, Rubens, van Dyck, Velazquez and El Greco, was appraised in 1933 at $2.5 million; the Brooklyn Museum’s was valued at $130,000.

Just weeks after that appraisal, however, Brooklyn’s windfall shrank when thieves broke into the building and made off with eight uninsured Friedsam paintings, including a Van Dyck and a Fra Angelico. (Stayton said he did not know if any had been recovered.)

Brooklyn did hang onto a painting attributed to El Greco, titled “Elderly Gentleman.” But as court papers reveal, that, alas, turned out not to be genuine.

© 2014 Star Tribune