A battle to confine art treasures within city limits

Florence is a city known for its art – and often, for its art feuds. So it was no surprise to many in the Tuscan city that last Monday, Italian Sen. Paolo Amato chained himself to the entrance of the Uffizi museum.

Senator Amato, a vocal proponent of keeping one of Florence's most precious paintings within Florence, was protesting the museum's plan to loan Leonardo da Vinci's masterpiece, "The Annunciation," to Japan. He was ultimately unsuccessful.

The protest marked a low point in a battle that has long roiled Europe's art circles: Can a city lay claim to a piece of art? Or does art belong to individual collectors and galleries? The Florence fiasco is all too familiar to the United States art community, which is increasingly ensnared in its own fights over ownership.

"It's often not a legal argument – 'who owns art?' – but it's an important question," says Richard Powell, an art history professor at Duke University in Durham, N.C. "Communities develop strong connections to art. And when you take it away, people are going to say something."

On Sunday, Tennessee's attorney general will probably close America's most recent bout – an uproar over Fisk University's intention to sell two of its most prized paintings, Georgia O'Keeffe's "Radiator Building" and Marsden Hartley's "Painting No. 3." The Nashville school argues it has little choice but to sell the pair, together worth more than $10 million. Operating costs are slowly depleting Fisk's endowment – even the gallery that normally displays the pieces is closed due to a leaky roof. The university hopes the proceeds from the sale can repair the gallery and aid the school financially.

The paintings were given to Fisk, a historically black college, in 1949 as part of a larger collection from O'Keeffe herself. Her donation was a pre-civil rights era statement that every community should have access to great art on campus. In giving the paintings up, many argue, Fisk is depriving its students of art that they see as their own.

"It's a Catch-22," admits Fisk sophomore Ijeoma Ike. "Selling art that has been a part of the university for so long is like taking away the spirit of the school.... But if it comes down to keeping the paintings or keeping Fisk, how do you choose?"

After a year of legal wrangling, the state's attorney general put a 30-day freeze on the sale, ending March 18, to allow the public an opportunity to contest. But with few days remaining, opponents have little hope of derailing the deal.

"It's too bad," says Jeffrey Fuller, an art dealer in Philadelphia. "There are those heartbreaking deals where the owners have cleared the sale, but the public says, 'Wait, what about us? Don't we get a say?' "

Last year, however, Mr. Fuller's hometown bucked the trend. The city's art community seethed in November with news that Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia would sell Thomas Eakin's "The Gross Clinic," possibly the most important American painting of the 19th century, to Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton, for her upcoming Bentonville, Ark., gallery. The price tag: $68 million, the most ever offered for an American painting created before World War II.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art responded with a campaign that argued that the painting has a "special relationship with the city" and removing the piece from the city limits would betray Philadelphia's patrimony.

Jefferson University gave the city 45 days to match Walton's bid and keep the piece in the Philadelphia museum. Thousands contributed, donating $30 million – short of the $68 million needed. In the end, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts ended up selling "The Cello Player," a less important Eakins canvas, and saved the "Gross Clinic."

At one point last year, the city's mayor proposed creating an art registry – a catalog of definitively local works – to regulate the sale of any listed items. The plan seems to have lost momentum, but such laws are common in Europe. Italy regulates which works may be sold or lent outside of the country. England is bound to the Waverley Criteria, a government check that asks if a work about to be sold is "of outstanding significance" to the community. If a piece is deemed a national treasure, local institutions have a right to make competing offers.

In both Philadelphia and Nashville, similar, one-time policies were adopted to halt the sale of local art. But the 30-day freeze on the O'Keeffe painting and Jefferson University's postponement of the Eakins deal were temporary fixes; neither action established any lasting legal precedent.

"I don't think America is going to take on laws like those in Europe anytime soon," says Patricia Hills, a professor of art history at Boston University. "We're too much of a free-market economy for that."

In fact, she argues, the free market is one of the catalysts for America's recent art spats. Buying art is a booming business. In November, The New York Times reported that movie mogul David Geffen sold a Jackson Pollock drip-and-pour piece for $140 million, the highest sum ever paid for a painting. The problem with these highly publicized transactions, objectors fear, is that museums are looking past the importance of their collections and are now seeing million-dollar checks hanging on the wall.

"We are going to see more big art deals," says Professor Hills. "And the bigger the paintings that are for sale, the more likely that we will have feuds."

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