Two years ago, a New York City art dealer caused a stir after a painting in the Blasco Library in Erie, Pennsylvania caught his eye. The dealer promptly wrote to an Erie County councilman asserting that he could sell the work, a painting by the American Impressionist Frederick Childe Hassam (1859-1935), for as much as $5 million at auction — a staggering prospect that touched off a tug-of-war between competing local institutions, each of which claims to own the work. This week, the Erie County Council decided by a vote of four to one to approve spending $10,000 on an out-of-court mediation to determine its rightful owner.
Even considering the library’s enviable collection of valuable paintings — including works by Edward Moran and Harry Mills Walcott, each of which is worth tens of thousands of dollars — the idea that the public library might have an asset worth 100 times more prompted local officials to consider selling off the art, a prospect that in other circumstances might be unthinkable. “You don’t want to just sell off artifacts for dollars because beauty and art and aesthetics are important in a community,” Erie County executive Barry Grossman told ArtfixDaily. “But that must be weighed against the greater good.”
What, then, is the hold up? While the painting, titled “Summer Afternoon, Isle of Shoals,” has resided for years in the public library, which is county property, lawyers for the nearby Erie County Museum insist that it is actually theirs, and it is this dispute that is heading to mediation. If the county’s claim on the Hassam stands, back in April of 2011, a task force hired by the county recommended that it be sold to the museum to support the library’s endowment. The fate of the painting, should it fall into the hands of the museum, is less clear.
The question of title is perhaps a distraction to the more heated debate over whether the local treasure should be sold at all. The prospect of selling the painting has prompted a barrage of oppositional blog posts and op-ed columns in local newspapers. Most of the seven County Council members oppose a sale, and the Northwestern Pennsylvania Artist Association vocally support legal action to keep it in Erie. “Selling the Hassam, it seems to me, would constitute an act of cultural vandalism,” wrote John Edwards, an art historian based in Venango, Pennsylvania, on GoErie.com.
— Reid Singer