Brooklyn Museum Selling Off Brooklyn’s Past

The Atlantic has a fascinating article in its June issue about the Brooklyn Museum’s efforts to sell off a collection of important terra cotta decorative carvings salvaged by a donor from construction sites around Brooklyn and Manhattan in 1950s. Ivan Karp, an 83-year-old art dealer who spearheaded the salvage effort and later donated hundreds of pieces to the Brooklyn Museum, is now understandably distraught that the museum, which has left many of the pieces exposed to the elements for the past decade, is planning to sell a large part of the collection off through the Harlem salvage dealer Evan Blum of Demolition Depot. This despite a 2007 letter from Arnold Lehman to Karp assuring him that whatever pieces the museum did not use in its redesigned sculpture garden would be returned to Karp, who started a small museum in Charlottesville in 1985 to house these types of objects. Here’s the part of the story when the writer informs Karp of the “deaccessioning” plans:

When I told him that the Brooklyn Museum was planning to auction off so many ornaments through Blum, Karp was astonished. If they’re deaccessioning to sell, that’s very discomfiting, he exclaimed. They should have offered them to me first to buy! As it happened, Karp had phoned Blum, whom he’d known and liked for decades, just the day before. Blum had told him that he was consulting with the museum about the expansion of the sculpture garden, but he did not mention anything about auctions.

Shaking a little, Karp began to leaf through a copy of the binder the museum had sent Blum, which I had brought to the gallery. Good grief! he cried at the sight of a carved brownstone tenement plaque of Abraham Lincoln, which had once been a centerpiece in the sculpture garden. That’s one of the most valuable pieces they have! It’s an historic American figure—how many like that have ever been carved by an anonymous person in homage to Lincoln? This is heartbreaking. A moment later, after peering at a majestic red terra-cotta boy, he said, They’re making serious blunders in many cases.

As he inspected the images, Karp shrank into his chair, until at last, looking very old and defeated, he announced he simply couldn’t look anymore.

Update: After the jump, check out the letter to the editor of the Atlantic that was just sent by the Brooklyn Museum.
Ghosts of New York [The Atlantic]

Re: John Freeman Gill article in The Atlantic Monthly on the Brooklyn Museum Collection of Architectural Fragments

The Brooklyn Museum regrets that the author’s comments do not reflect the substantive content of his hours of conversation with Museum staff, or of the extensive and detailed information subsequently provided in response to his questions. The Brooklyn Museum always investigates a range of possibilities for public disposition of works that have entered the deaccession process (the first step in releasing objects from a Museum’s collection), but currently has no agreement with any sales venue regarding the sale of recently deaccessioned architectural fragments. The Museum looks forward to continuing our plans for the full installation of the architectural sculpture collection, in consultation with specialists in the field who in recent years have contributed to the first qualitative assessment of these holdings.

Arnold L. Lehman, Director Brooklyn Museum

Teresa A. Carbone, Andrew W. Mellon Curator of American Art, Brooklyn Museum

56 Comment

  • aw, that is kinda sad.


  • Sad, but decorative carvings would be better served by a museum devoted to the decorative arts. Low priority, overall, given the collection housed by BMA. However, the BMA certainly should have honored its pledge to return the work, if they couldn’t care for it adequately.

  • OK- this is more than sad.

    Brownstoner- this is certainly the kind of thing that a site like yours could help organize an opposition against. Twitter campaign, phone calls, petitions. You have the readership to mobilize. (and the masthead that would imply that you should.)

  • I second greenwoodgeneral!

    Let’s organize!! This is truly to heart breaking to let continue!!!!

  • It’s kinda sad… kinda… but I’m not sure why the Museum should feel any special compunction to work with the original donor. I mean, “They don’t know what their doing,” is just emotional and naive. The Museum knows what it’s doing. They are reducing their collection to pieces they have identified as “keepers” and they are selling off the rest to the highest bidder. Why should he be offered them first? He can participate in the auction.

    By the way, the Museum director didn’t promise anything.

    “We would be willing to consider the opportunity to return any of the objects that are not among this chosen group,” Lehman wrote.

    That’s what you say when you have an emotional person that won’t leave you alone. There was no promise. And, anyway, the opportunity to return the objects has taken the form of an auction.

  • terrible!! what can we do to help this guy get his donations back or something!?

  • I agree! Thats some two-faced bulls%&t. It really hurts their efforts to secure future donations when items and donors are treated this way.

  • What is so outrageous about what the museum is doing? They obviously don’t have the means to take care of these artifacts. So, rather than let them continue to rot, they sell them to a dealer who will find private owners who will be interested in preserving them. Sounds like a win-win to me: artifacts find a good home, and museum raises funds at a time of austerity.

  • The Brooklyn Museum IS ostensibly dedicated to the decorative arts, or at least has been in the past- the very fact that they they had this collection, the textile collections they recently sold, the american period housing and design wings- maybe they are changing their mission (which has probably never been this poorly defined in the museums history).

    In fact, the top two items on the museum’s home page right now are the ‘American High Style’ exhibit, and a fahsion accessory event/exhibit.

    But they are the BROOKLYN MUSEUM. They should have a greater interest in preserving items like these for the public welfare.

  • what does the BK Museum say about this?

  • “a 2007 letter from Arnold Lehman to Karp assuring him that whatever pieces the museum did not use in its redesigned sculpture garden would be returned to Karp”

    At the risk of sounding like a lawyer, depending on the wording, it’s entirely possible that Lehman’s letter is binding on the museum, and that Karp could successfully sue to prevent the sale and have the pieces returned to him instead.

  • benson, see CGar’s 9:57 post, that’s what the issue is.

  • Greenwoodgeneral — I think you are conflating two different organizations with two different purposes.

    Brooklyn Museum Mission Statement:
    “The mission of the Brooklyn Museum is to act as a bridge between the rich artistic heritage of world cultures, as embodied in its collections, and the unique experience of each visitor. Dedicated to the primacy of the visitor experience, committed to excellence in every aspect of its collections and programs, and drawing on both new and traditional tools of communication, interpretation, and presentation, the Museum aims to serve its diverse public as a dynamic, innovative, and welcoming center for learning through the visual arts.”

    Brooklyn Historical Society Mission:
    “The Brooklyn Historical Society connects the past to the present and makes the vibrant history of Brooklyn tangible, relevant and meaningful for today’s diverse communities, and for generations to come.”

  • CGar and DIBS — Mr. B mis-paraphrased the letter and the “promise.”

    As I said in my 9:51 post:

    By the way, the Museum director didn’t promise anything.

    “We would be willing to consider the opportunity to return any of the objects that are not among this chosen group,” Lehman wrote.

  • Ivan Karp of OK Harris fame is a legend. I bet he has donated plenty to the BK Museum over the years.

  • The standard of ethics for museums has always been too sell artwork only to acquire other artwork. For example; you only sell a handful of lesser-quality impressionist paintings to buy a masterpiece. It’s clear that the museum won’t be acquiring any more of these architectural fragments with the money this generates, so what will they do with it? The Brooklyn Museum, especially under Lehman, has made some very poor choices in the last decade, so they can’t be trusted to “do the right thing.”
    Selling-off Brooklyn (and NYC’s) architectural heritage? This is exactly what the museum should be preserving, and holding on to tightly!
    Also, if Ivan Karp can show that he has a deed-of-gift or other contract in writing from the original donation, spelling-out what should be done with the works, then he should pursue their return to him. They’d be better-off with him than sitting on the grass in the rain like they’ve ben “stored” at the museum.
    An Evan Blum? The most despicable of all salvage dealers? The museum could have easily found some other high-end dealer who could properly handle this if they wanted to sell. Every aspect of this stinks, and makes the museum look like it’s run by amateurs.

  • ty, I understand that, but he still might be able to prevail in litigation. Depends on what promises and representations were made at the time of the original donation, any made subsequently, and the exact wording of the 2007 letter. Were I representing Karp, I would immediately move for a Temporary Restraining Order to block the sale (and I’d say there’s a very good chance he’d prevail pending the outcome of the litigation), and then get ahold of all the documents and take relevant testimony from the people involved during discovery. No such thing as a simple open and closed case. (I’m not a lawyer, but I play one on TV.)

  • Benson this is not a win win. The artifacts get good homes-in private collections.The viewing public loses. While these pieces are of interest to Brooklynites, do these kind of artifacts really fetch high enough prices on the open market to justify this loss?

  • what did we expect when we let them sell the costume collection.

    an argument could be nmade that brooklyn’s greatest flaw is brooklyn’s inability to coalesce around issues that matter.

    the poorer people don’t think on these terms. and the wealthy are pretty much transient.

    sad. boo.

  • Arnold Lehman is a putz. I used to go to the Brooklyn Museum several times a year to see shows that Manhattan institutions were too timid to exhibit. I think I have been to BMA twice since Lehman took over. And during that time, much of the senior staff has gone elsewhere.

  • Sounds like just the latest chapter in the Museum’s ongoing history of poor management, and a very unfortunate one.

    And to give the collection to ultra-slimy dealer Evan Blum? Hopefully the pieces won’t be housed in a building he barely maintains, like his old shop in the East Village that was condemned.

  • Isn’t there a regular ‘Stoner contributor who knows Karp & could find out what the real story is?

  • Agreed, g man. Arnold Lehman is ruining the place.

  • tybur6,

    Sorry to do a lawyer pile-on here. You are right that the quoted language seems to fall short of a promise. But I would not draw a conclusion either from that or Mr. B’s characterization. Whether Karp has a legal basis to claw the items back would require looking at the whole 2007 letter and any documents exchanged at the time of the donation setting forth or evidencing the terms of the donations and any rights Karp might have (or not).

  • Oops — I didn’t refresh before posting. CGar covered largely the same turf. I’ll write off my time so you won’t be double-billed, tyburg.

  • Absolutely… I’m not claiming Señor Karp doesn’t have a legal claim, just that the quote from the 2007 letter doesn’t fulfill a “promise.” There are many points where he may or may not have a claim of “claw back” for these donations. But The Atlantic article didn’t lay out enough evidence to show this is the case… what it did lay out was a Museum selling some of its collection for revenue and the original donor upset by this.

    This sounds like the great great great grandaughter of the Cadbury Chocolate company whining on the BBC News about Kraft Foods acquiring the company… he family legacy is collapsing before her eyes, etc. etc.

    Also, I COMPLETELY disagree with the idea that the Brooklyn Museum should be in the business of preserving Brooklyn artifacts. Again, I will point you to the mission statement of the Brooklyn Historical Society above.

  • I agree that this is shameful. If they don’t want the terra-cotta, which is also short sighted, especially for pieces such as the Lincoln piece mentioned, they should return them to Karp. At the very least, since those who are doing this are NOT experts on this matter, they should consult those who are, people such as Susan Tunik, of the Friends of Terra-Cotta, who could advise them of what pieces to keep and display, and what could be given back.

    The Brooklyn Museum should be embarrassed and ashamed to pull such shenanigans, with carefully worded loopholes. It creates an immediate sense of distrust, which does not sit well in an institution of its magnitude and importance. Every museum has storerooms of objects they can’t display, and it’s understandable that from time to time, things have to go, but a promise is a promise. If you don’t want them, give them back to the donor.

  • I know Ivan Karp and his Anonymous Arts group is quite amazing. The town referenced above Charlotteville (no “s”) is home to the Karps and many of the OK Harris gallery artists in the summer time. The Karps have done an amazing history of Charlotteville that they display in a restored church in town and also have a bit of the terra cotta and other NYC building salvage there. Hopefully the Museum will do right after this kind of backlash.

  • I think you guys are blowing this completely out of proportion… simply because you have a soft spot for Brooklyneana.

  • Besides, tybur, the BHS does not have the room or facilities for a large terra-cotta collection, the irony of having some of the best t-c in Bklyn on its facade, notwithstanding. The Brooklyn Museum has more room. And who says all of our eggs need to be in one basket?(apologies to the punsters on the OT)I would like to think that since we are surrounded by history and historical artifacts, they should be spread around, so that visitors to any of our great institutions can catch a piece of local history. The BHS has limited hours, and a much more literary and ephereral focus.

  • I hear ya MM. But I have to say, institutions that try to be all things to all people have a hard time getting anything done right… I’m thinking about “mission creep” in Community Colleges. They take on more and more and more, simply because they are willing and, vaguely, able.

    Same with Museums.

    Of course the BHS doesn’t have enough space for this. But they could… if they decided their next fundraising drive should be to house artifacts like terra cotta facade pieces. The Brooklyn Museum has decided that they *do not* have the space for these items… and don’t want to have the space for these items.

    Maybe the BHS should think about changing its focus and bid at this auction? Or perhaps someone could open a Museum of Anonymous Artists in Brooklyn… and bid at this auction.

  • Ty;

    You have redeemed yourself “somewhat” in my eyes with your 11.08 post.

  • Hey- we need to clarify. These are not just brooklyn artifacts, right? They are architectural artifacts from all around NYC, and other places in the U.S., aren’t they?

    To me (at least) this is not a Brooklyn Historical Focus, but preserving and displaying these falls in line with the other decorative/design/achitecture collections the museum has, and particularly fits with their focus on American architectural decoration, which I will point out again has a tremendouse focus at the museum-

    I think what’s grumbling around this post are a few things:

    1. People’s feeling that the current musuem administration is being short sighted in selling off one giant collection of stone and terracotta that does tie in with the museum’s historical mission (i.e., they used to be the feature of the museums’s sculpture garden.)

    2. Not knowing or trusting that museum will do ther right thing with the collection they will retain (given the odd choices with ‘open storage’ exhibits, selling of the costumes and textiles, etc.. we’ve recently seen. Not to mention that they’ve got half a floor now dedicated to Judy Chicago- which is arguably great art- but also just another table full of terra-cotta.

    3. A general feeling of distrust and dislike for the beneficiaries of the sale- i.e. Demo Depot. Who, yes, let a whole building fall down in the east village, who keeps most of their stuff in conditions that don’t improve the current storage of these artifacts, and who trade on the notion that they are rescuing these items, when they are invested in tearing as much of this off their original buildings as possible. (and they are overpriced and not nice.)

  • And keep in mind — I have NOT commented on the Brooklyn Museums *specific* curatorial decisions or how it’s run. I very much enjoy the Brooklyn Museum and appreciate the wide-range of genres and topics they cover…. I love the selection of the Brooklyn-centric exhibits like the Flatlands farmhouse etc… however, a Brooklyn artifact preservation institution, I hope it never becomes. Then there would be no place for shows like the Rock and Roll photography or Rodin statues.

  • Benson — I redeemed myself? I thought I was in agreement with you this whole time? When did I go off the rails….

  • These are not Brooklyn based exclusively no but they do speak to the general issues of this website. The notion that these artifacts, which represent a long-gone era of industrial craftsmanship, can be so cavalierly treated is completely in line with at least part of the mission statement here.

    People tend to forget that it was less than 50 years ago that Penn Station was torn down despite its being designed by perhaps the most famous architectural firm of the early 20th century. And right now I am making a documentary about the fate of the old visitor’s center at Gettysburg, designed by Richard Neutra, which is scheduled for demolition. These cases point to the fact that we tend, as a society, to dismiss things in our not too distant past, only to realize our error a few decades later and have no recourse.

    These artifacts are nowhere near the league of the above buildings but still, there is a common theme here. We can’t get these things back once they are gone.

  • wasder — Your comments remind me of Dodge City, KS. They tore down what was left of old Front Street in the 40s, and within a few years, westerns got really big, so they built a replica of the old Front Street on another site to capitalize on and attract tourism. When I was there 25 years ago, they were not so keen on letting folks know it wasn’t a real preservation, more like a movie set.

  • I think part of the problem here is perceived “worth”. Obviously, the Bklyn Museum sees little worth in these artifacts. The donor, Ivan Karp, sees great worth, or he wouldn’t have given them to a place where he thought (erroneously) that they would be given a place of respect, preservation, and display.

    These objects are examples of sculpture by anonymous artists, rescued from buildings long gone, and are of value for both their artistic worth, and for having come from important, and perhaps in some eyes, unimportant, buildings that made up the fabric of a vibrant and important city – late 19th century Brooklyn. Ok, a lot of people don’t get that, including many on this site. So, if the museum is not willing to be educated by the experts, and not willing to keep a donation from a living donor, then the right thing is to give the donation back to him, especially since he wants them back, and has a place for it. Trying to make money off of the donation, while the man is still breathing – breathing and not happy with it, is really tacky.

  • The brooklyn museum’s current exhibits include historical houses recreated from Manhattan, North Carolina, Brooklyn, and I think some other places- the focus isn’t on ‘brookleana’ as much as the development of housing, and architectural decoration- it ranges from pre-colonial, federal, victorian, deco, etc… these pieces surely fit in with that, regardless of Brooklyn focus.

  • ROFL about Dodge City slope.

    I know another person who has started a thing called the “Recent Past Preservation Network.” She seeks to protect buildings that are old enough to be landmarked but not really old enough to be recognized as “valuable” in a historical context. She is one of the people who are central to trying to save Neutra’s Cyclorama Center at Gettysburg, which is a modernist spaceship of a building that offends the sensibilities of the Civil War buffs at G-burg.

  • Well said, wasder and greenwoodgeneral.

    Tybur, I think that in order to survive, as well as be relevant to a vast host of people, the Museum will continue to have all kinds of exhibits. It can’t, nor should it try, to be a 19th century, upperclass drawing room of Old Masters. And I think everyone understands, including Mr. Karp, that from time to time things are sold off, to make room for more. This was just shady doings, and a slap in the face to a living donor.

  • The Brooklyn Museum is in desperate need of money.

    Worse, this is our fault really. If every one of the 2,500,000 citizens of Brooklyn donated $100 to $200, we would have enough money to actually finish the museum – making it four times it’s present size and realizing a century’s worth of effort.

    The problem the museum has is their collection is absolutely huge, but because the museum was never finished it all sits in storage.

    Too bad for this guy, but let’s not pretend we aren’t all to blame for the languishing of such an important institution in the second most densely populated county in the country.

  • In my mind this is not a legal matter but a “do the right thing” matter. Karp donated these objects and the museum accepted them so that the public could enjoy them into the future. The museum decided to change focus or deemed it unfeasible to display them at some point. Thats fine. But fairness should dictate that the original donor be consulted on the disposition of the objects especially considering that Karp is still alive and well. We’re not dealing with relatives five generations removed from a compensated transaction as Tybur6 equates.
    They should have plainly stated to Karp that as much as they liked the objects they have a new focus and would he like to arrange transfer to another institution or allow the sale and thank him for his generosity.

  • “the right thing is to give the donation back to him, especially since he wants them back”

    My only point.

    I’m not necessarily opposed to museums selling items in their collections to buy other items and, for example, upgrade their collections, as with the impressionist example someone gave above.

  • Ty;

    I’m referring to some of your other recent comments on other threads.

    I think HDL makes a fair point at 12.09.

  • Okay so this stuff was donated in the 1950s? Unless there was an agreement between the donor and the museum that imposed an obligation on the museum to return the items if they no longer wanted them, the donation was an absolute free gift. The museum is entitled to keep or dispose of any donated item as it sees fit.

    Prominent museums and art galleries receive an astonishing amount of stuff as donations, most of it is not suitable to be included in the collection. Many museums and art galleries no longer accept donated art or artifacts unless they are of a type that they would purchase for their collections. Most museums and art galleries refuse any donations with strings attached – it is too much of a headache accounting for these type of items.

    As far as I am concerned, the Brooklyn Museum is entitled to sell the stuff. If you want it, buy it.

  • As a legal matter, you’d have to see the original exchanges at the time of the donation. The 2007 letter, even if it were a promise, does not appear supported by consideration, so it’s not a contract, and doesn’t appear designed to get Karp to part with anything else, so it’s not fraud (even assuming Lehman was lying to him, for which there’s no evidence). I’m not an expert in NFP corporation law, but perhaps there’s something in there about restrictions on what can be done with donations — I think there might be something like that for charities, but I just don’t recall.

    Otherwise, when you give somebody something, they can do what the want with it — hang it on the wall, sell it, pee on it, whatever. Karp presumably got some kind of tax deduction for his donation. If he wanted to put strings on the donation, he had the opportunity to do so. I feel badly for him because he’s obviously upset and obviously has behaved decently here. But if the Museum can realize more value by selling, then barring those strings, it can do so.

  • Benson — Oh, it was a general redemption. Well, I accept that.

    HDL does make a fair point. Since he’s alive and kicking, it would have been a more gentlemanly approach.

    As far as the “value” and “preserving the artefactual record” or whatnot… well, that’s the decision of the Museum and it’s board of trustees. There is no “distrust” of the Museum — there are just folks that don’t like the decisions the museum’s administration made. And you feel impotent because you are not able to influence the decision.

    Rather than being “distrustful” of the museum, I would suggest making a donation of a couple million dollars and buy your way onto the board. (There are other ways to get onto the board, of course, but you’d probably already be a member if you possessed those qualities.) You can then get the Director and the curatorial team removed and shape the museum how you see fit.

  • ProfRobert — that’s a great idea. Those items they can’t sell should be installed in the urinals and everyone can pee on them! 😉

  • This is a bit off topic, but this is the *only* way Detroit can possibly reemerge as a vibrant city. All of the city’s residents (and with it utilities, safety, services, etc.) have to be concentrated in a center. The sprawl (with no money) is simply not possible.

  • (OK – that was *very* off topic… but it was Wasder’s fault!)

  • I have been around long enough (even working at the Brooklyn Museum as a child) to see it live through many reinventions. The outside of that building was a favorite playground when it consisted of little more than barren hills and the museum’s well-known statue of Indian on horseback. It is ludicrous spin-doctoring for the Museum to close a section (most likely leading to a new café, or the next phase of “growth”), and then use that closure as pretext for claiming it no longer has room to house the very items for which items were donated and garden created. I know for sure that many items were obtained in the 70s, one example being the wonderful lion’s heads that used to grace the no-longer-existing technical school at the corners of Mott, Spring and Elizabeth Streets (torn down to be replaced by LIRA housing). There’s no reason for these items to become a springboard for building Blum’s auction business. If you talk to Evan Blum, you’ll get a long story of his own victimhood and persecution at the hands of Giuliani and certain manufacturers of concrete overalls. For those not familiar with the events, and the destruction of thousands of irreplaceable artifacts (the name of his former business), these links will shed some light:

  • Vinca, If I recall correctly many of the more spectacular architectural ornaments (I’m thinking of the Clock Figures from Pennsylvania Station)in BK Museum’s garden were dug up out of the Jersey swamp where they were dumped as land fill.

    I often toured Irreplaceable Artifacts on my lunch hour… As I recall Blum was building a ground floor door way to his garden in order to open some kind of a cafe when the sidewall collapsed. Before the city finished the job, you could see all those beautiful sparkling chandeliers and stained glass windows through the gaping hole. I don’t believe they let him get anything out before they punished him.

    I bought this fantastic 6’cast iron slipper tub right before the end.

  • IMBY, yes you’re right about the clock figures. In fact, they’re marked “Gift of Lipsett Demolition Co. and Youngstown Cartage.” Leaves one wondering about progress: items that enlivened our public walkways, discarded in landfills, never to be seen again v. same items now salvaged for their retail value or converted to auctionable commodities, transferred from public access to private collections, never to be seen again. As to Blum and Giuliani: a complex story of many parties involved in irresponsible destruction of architectural treasures.

  • Montrose Morris, I do take your point about the historic value of the collection, and I’m not immune to the need to acknowledge and preserve historical culture (my doctoral thesis tread this ground). However, I still maintain that this collection would be best served by an institution that either deals solely or primarily with the decorative arts or the history of New York. Sure lots of museums have departments devoted to the decorative arts, but obviously the BMA doesn’t have the cash to play that game anymore. The BMA has a fine art collection of international importance, and given their limited means, this is rightly the focus of the museum. We are not talking fine art here, we are talking decorative arts. Big difference.