A Struggling Historic Library Says It Needs to Sell Its Art

“We can no longer function as an art gallery,” he said, “and we could no longer provide proper maintenance to an art collection worth over one million dollars.”


Martín Rico y Ortega’s “Ponte dell’Angelo.” Credit via Sotheby’s

Some critics of the sale are particularly upset that the library rejected a plan by two art patrons, Cathy and Jesse Marion of Houston who had proposed keeping the collection in Jamestown by buying about 40 of the works for $1.2 million and finding a new home for them in the city.

“I’m mostly disappointed for the city of Jamestown,” Mr. Marion said. “We did have a ray of hope.”

Mr. Rankin said the library had to pass on that offer because the New York State attorney general’s office, which oversees nonprofit organizations, had objected to a private sale without testing whether the paintings might actually bring in more if sold through public auction.

The library’s sale of the paintings comes as the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, Mass., was still fighting to sell multiple works from its collection, including two by Norman Rockwell. It has said proceeds would be used to build its endowment and for renovations and expanded programming. But the first seven of the works, including the Rockwells, were pulled from a Nov. 13 auction at Sotheby’s after a judge granted an injunction requested by the Massachusetts attorney general’s office, which wanted more time to examine whether that sale would be proper.

Museum organizations typically object when museums sell art to subsidize operating and other expenses instead of using such proceeds to enhance or maintain a collection. But the act of selling artworks from a library collection is slightly different, experts say, because art is not generally viewed as central to a library’s mission. In that respect, the sale by the Prendergast Library more closely resembles one in 2005 by the New York Public Library of more than a dozen paintings including “Kindred Spirits,” a beloved Hudson River School landscape by Asher B. Durand.

The library in Jamestown is named after James Prendergast, who died in 1879 and was the grandson of the city’s founder. Two years ago, word spread there that the library wanted to sell paintings bought with money from the estate of James’s mother, Mary A. Prendergast, who died in 1889.

Soon, residents and former residents began a campaign to keep the paintings in the city. Mr. Marion, whose wife, Cathy, grew up there, said he reached a verbal agreement last year with library officials to buy about 40 works. The plan, Mr. Marion said, was to work with local preservationists to find a permanent home in Jamestown for the paintings.

Mr. Rankin said that the library clarified with the Surrogate’s Court that Ms. Prendergast’s will allowed the sale of the paintings and notified the attorney general’s office of the proposed sale to the Marions.

In May, after the attorney general’s office questioned whether the paintings could sell for more than Mr. Marion had offered, the state’s lawyers cleared the way for the library to sell the works as long as it did so through “one or more auction houses each of sufficient size and character to market the said paintings.”

The museum will hold onto about 10 paintings that directly relate to the area or to the Prendergast family.

Still, for some who live or grew up in Jamestown, the sale is a disappointing outcome. Tom Andolora, a voice teacher and playwright who now lives in New York City, said he remembered being transported as a 12-year-old while gazing works like Rico y Ortega’s painting of a Venetian canal or “In the Garden” by Boldini, which shows a woman in a long white dress beneath a verdant tree.

“I thought I was in the most amazing gallery in the world,” he said.

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