Sale of Depression-era painting draws a federal lawsuit

AP News
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Posted: May 31, 2016 10:42 AM

CAMDEN, N.J. (AP) — A New Jersey art dealer trying to sell a Depression-era painting online has gotten an offer — a lawsuit from the federal government.

The feds filed a lawsuit last week to lay claim to a painting that Cherry Hill art dealer Matthew Schwartz listed on eBay for $8,500 in October 2015.

Schwartz told the Courier-Post (http://on.cpsj.com/1Za88uN ) that he will argue that the U.S. General Services Administration has no right to the "1934 Farmer" painting that he purchased several years ago and carefully restored.

The GSA said that the painting was created more than 80 years ago by John Slavin, who was employed through a Depression Era program for artists.

Schwartz, who runs an online art dealership, said the only reason the GSA wants the oil-on-canvas painting of a man smoking a pipe is because he saved it.

"It's my care for the painting that makes it desirable," he said.

Since 2001, the GSA has been pursuing the return of "lost and stolen" artwork commissioned under the Works Progress Administration, said spokeswoman Sarah Breen.

More than 460 works valued at about $4.3 million have been recovered during that period, she said.

The GSA recovered 54 pieces of WPA art worth about $500,000 from April through September 2015, according to its latest Congress report.

Recovered artworks will ultimately be placed on loan to institutions across the country for display, the GSA said.

The federal complaint filed May 23 against Schwartz said that government-commissioned works originally were "loaned or allocated" to government entities, nonprofits and tax-supported organizations.

The suit said that "it was clearly stated that the federal government would hold full legal title to artwork on long-term loan."

Slavin's painting was held for decades by the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Virginia, which disposed of it in 1990, Schwartz said.

Schwartz didn't offer further details about his purchase of the work.

But the lawsuit contends that "inactivity" and "neglect" don't affect the government's ownership and that only Congress can authorize the disposal of federal property.

The complaint also claimed that Schwartz's sales offer initially cited the painting's frame, which had a Works Progress Administration plaque. It said those references disappeared after the GSA contacted Schwartz, who pulled the painting from eBay and then offered it again for three days in November 2015 for $10,500.

Schwartz said sales of WPA artworks are common.

"There's commerce in these paintings every day," he said. "They have entire photography auctions where every piece is stamped 'WPA'."

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Information from: Courier-Post (Cherry Hill, N.J.), http://www.courierpostonline.com/