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Amid red ink, Jamestown library plans to sell artworks

In the face of mounting budget deficits, the James Prendergast Library in Jamestown is planning to sell 19th- and 20th-century paintings and tapestries valued at as much as $1 million from its art collection through two New York City auction houses.

But as word of the planned auctions spreads through the community and beyond, an opposition movement to the proposed sale is quickly mounting.

The library is facing deficits of $90,000 this year and a projected $180,000 in 2016, a situation that Library Board President R. Thomas Rankin described as dire enough to merit the sale of some of the library’s most valuable artworks.

“We cannot continue to operate with this kind of deficit, and the board needs to make some difficult decisions,” Rankin said in a phone interview Monday. “We have the option of selling some of our artwork, hopefully getting approximately a million dollars and putting that into our endowment to generate income for the future.”

In August, the board voted to accept an offer from Sotheby’s Auction House to handle the sale of a still-undecided number of historic paintings from its approximately 60-piece collection, which includes work by Hudson River School painters William Trost Richards and Jasper Francis Copsey, European portrait artists such as Jules Joseph Lefebvre and a portrait of the artist Vincent van Gogh attributed to Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Christie’s Auction House will handle the sale of several tapestries by the modern artist Alexander Calder, others of which were sold by the library during the 1990s.

None of the library’s paintings depicting benefactor and Jamestown namesake James Prendergast and his family or landscapes of Jamestown would be sold, Rankin said.

The news of the proposed sale has caused anger in the community. A Facebook page, “Save Local Art,” was launched Sept. 4 after word of the proposed sale began to spread and an online petition opposing it has so far gathered 412 supporters.

Lily Grice, an 18-year-old Jamestown resident and spokeswoman for the loosely organized opposition group, characterized the board’s decision as hasty.

“There are so many different things that could be done with these paintings, not necessarily even keeping them at the library, but keeping them in Jamestown,” she said. “We’re very upset that they’re just going right towards, ‘Let’s auction it,’ because it’s a heritage collection. There’s a lot of pieces in it, and they were meant to stay together.”

In a phone interview Monday, Prendergast Library Director Tina Scott acknowledged the mounting opposition but characterized the move as a financial necessity.

“Emails are going out; people are upset. We get it, but, you know, it’s money,” she said. “It’s money and a lot of other things. We’re trying to keep the library open for years to come.”

Rankin stressed that the central mission of the library was not to care for historic works of art, but to serve the community by providing free access to books and other educational resources.

Even so, many libraries, including the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library, maintain strict policies against selling or “deaccessioning” works in deference to their role as guardians of art held in the public trust.

“We do not sell anything. We don’t have any plans to sell anything. We don’t swap, either,” said Joy Testa Cinquino, assistant deputy director of the Buffalo library. “We have a statement that the Rare Book Room does not weed or deaccess its collection.”

Rankin said that library leadership has not yet determined how many artworks to sell – it could be “from zero to some” of the collection – but that he anticipated works would go on the block in the auction houses’ November or May sales. He also said the proposed sale was not connected to the library’s 2014 renovation project, which was funded by grants and did not add to its budget deficit.

The plan comes with an important legal complication: In her will, according to Rankin, library benefactor Mary Prendergast stipulated that the works she donated or those purchased with her bequest remain in the library’s possession “forever.” The library’s board of trustees plans to file a petition in Chautauqua County Surrogate’s Court this week seeking permission from the court to sell the pieces, Rankin said, “even though we don’t believe we need this permission.”

Though much smaller in scale, the nascent controversy in Jamestown echoes the Albright-Knox Art Gallery’s hotly disputed 2007 sale of more than 200 artworks from its own collection deemed outside its mission. That sale, also handled by Sotheby’s, netted the gallery more than $67 million.

The Prendergast Library’s leadership hopes for a more modest payday, even though the opposition to the plan is shaping up to be just as fierce. Opponents plan to attend a meeting of the library’s board at 12:15 p.m. Thursday.

“In the 1980s and 1990s, the library sold some pieces from the collection without any trouble,” Rankin said. “We don’t believe that we must hold these forever. It seems far-fetched that the library would close and not be able to sell some of these pieces.”