Folk Art Museum to Sell Off Works at Sotheby’s for Chairman’s Debts

by Kyle Chayka on April 25, 2013

"Girl in Red Dress With Cat and Dog" from the American Folk Art Museum's collection (Image courtesy AFAM)

“Girl in Red Dress With Cat and Dog” from the American Folk Art Museum’s collection (Image courtesy AFAM)

The Tod Williams and Billie Tsien-designed building isn’t all that the American Folk Art Museum is losing as it retreats from its large home in midtown and cedes it to the Museum of Modern Art. It also has to give up over 200 works that were promised to it by collector and museum chairman Ralph Esmerian, who is currently serving a six-year prison sentence for fraud, reports The Art Newspaper.

In 2005, Esmerian pledged to donate 263 works of folk art from his renowned collection to the museum. Yet the collector also used those same works as collateral to get millions of dollars in loans from Christie’s and Sotheby’s, creditors that soon came calling for the objects they now owned as Esmerian defaulted.

There is a bright spot, however. The Manhattan U.S. Bankruptcy Court just approved a settlement that lets the Folk Art Museum keep 53 of the promised works. The museum’s curators selected the gift’s best objects to keep. Many of which were on view at AFAM’s exhibition Compass: Folk Art Museum in Four Directions, shown at the South Street Seaport Museum in 2012.

"Situation of America," an Esmerian collection object staying the American Folk Art Museum's collection (Image courtesy AFAM)

“Situation of America,” an Esmerian collection object staying the American Folk Art Museum’s collection (Image courtesy AFAM)

One piece that the museum is making sure to hold on to is “Situation of America,” a painting by an unknown artist in 1848 that depicts a paddle-wheel boat in the New York City port harbor, with the early skyline as seen from Brooklyn on the horizon. The image has become an icon both for its rendering of a famous landscape and its simple, naïve style. Rather than showing the drama of the burgeoning modern city, this work is calm, logical, and clear.

The remainder of Esmerian’s collection will be sold at Sotheby’s in another controversy-provoking move. Apparently, in the course of securing his loans, he also promised exclusivity rights to auction his collection to both Christie’s and Sotheby’s, but the final sale has gone solely to Sotheby’s, much to the latter’s dismay. The winning auction house reached a “private settlement” with the trustee of Esmerian’s collection, according to TAN’s Julia Halperin, and traded a lower monetary commitment for the auction rights.

The works are slated to finally go to auction in late 2013 or early 2014.

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