Monday, January 15, 2007

Stolen Art, Donations & More Whinge

This came across my desk this morning and I thought I'd share as it helps re-enforce why I'll never donate another item to a museum or a University.

ORIGINAL ART: THE QUESTION OF LEGALITY!

Sometimes there are as many problems as perks in this business.

The original art situation is a prime example and riddled with stories about work that has been lost, destroyed or stolen—sometimes all three, at once. In a perfect world, the artists—or their agents—would deal directly with collectors, but that scenario was made impossible decades ago by publishers who insisted on keeping the publication rights and the work itself. Although things may be more equitable today than yesterday, the past is heaped with corruption, greed, and betrayal. And sometimes, it continues to taint the present.

One such situation has recently come to my attention: the sale of my original FOOM Poster art.

About a year ago, the piece was in the possession of an individual who requested, through my manager J. David Spurlock, my signature on it. I declined. Unlike many comic convention guests, I do not charge for signing material (with the exception of dealers who plan to resell it) and have autographed thousands of books, prints, posters, and original art for fans and friends. This specific request, however, was unique because of the disreputable chain of events behind it. In the 1970s, I gifted the art to the Harry "A" Chesler Collection at Fairleigh-Dickenson University because I was a friend of Harry's for many years (with many visits to my home or his) and I helped structure the collection at his request.

Most of Harry's original comics pages were drawn by obscure artists in the 1930-40s and were not particularly impressive by today's standards. I felt that a major piece of my work would not only bring the collection up to date, but also give it a fundamental cornerstone upon which other material could be added and built. I selected the FOOM Poster because it was large, viewable, well-known, and visualized all the primary Marvel characters, the ONLY such piece I have ever done. To make it even more sensational and valuable, I hand colored the art. Harry seemed touched by the gift and it deepened our friendship significantly.

I assure you that Harry did NOT provide his art collection and a sizable annuity to FD to maintain it so they could sell it off; I say this because I was THERE, every step of the way. Harry had a vision that his collection would grow annually, funded by the interest of the $100K+ gift he had granted the school, into America's most IMPORTANT comics-related art gallery and reference library on the subject. The FD administration assured him that his dream would be realized. Instead, beyond the initial dedication event, FD has NEVER done a thing of significance with the HAC Collection—until Harry died. Then, they began to sell it off. I protested bitterly with letters and phone calls, but was rebuffed with an explanation that "higher administration" had made the decision to liquidate much of the collection.

Essentially, they had promised Harry a magnificent legacy, then blew it out for cash. Their actions were a clear violation of Harry's intent. Likewise, I did NOT give Harry and the school the FOOM Poster original to sell or give away. It was Harry's understanding that his unique pop-culture collection be FOREVER maintained in his name. Instead, the institution has NEVER used the material for any significant purpose, except to sell it off, which is unreasonable, disgraceful, and unethical. What was to be a LIVING TRIBUTE to one of the founders of the Golden Age of Comics became a travesty, smearing the school and those involved with the scum of greed, lies, and hypocrisy.

However, I have no knowledge of my gift ever being sold and am quite disturbed that this art, given to memorialize an early comics publisher whom I knew for many years, will financially benefit people who have nothing to do with upholding the honorable purpose of my donation. At the end of last year, I exchanged several emails with the person who had the art, after hearing that his intention was to sell it. In attempting to determine how he obtained it, I heard a number of conflicting stories. When I requested even minor proof that the art was obtained legitimately, the individual finally claimed "the piece has already been sold, privately." Yet, this week, it has materialized in an offering by an "auctioneer," along with descriptive copy that seems to suggest I have sanctioned the piece. I have not.

For the record, I have no personal knowledge of the art ever being liquidated by FD University and suspect that it may have been surreptitiously removed from the facility and could qualify as stolen goods. The individual who curated the collection has also stated that he has no awareness of the art being liquidated at auction. The high value of the art would place such a piece in a felony status, possibly putting any seller and buyer in criminal jeopardy. It is in all our interests to deal honestly and fairly, whether privately or publicly, with this kind of situation. What should have been a point of celebration has, instead, become a tragic and unsavory moment of comic history.

I urge those in possession of the piece to return it to FD for the purpose it was originally intended.

JIM STERANKO
That burns me up but I hate to say this, it's not that uncommon a practice from what I've noticed. I've bought several books and manuscripts from various charity sales that have the donation details notated in them on the inside, in one case I bought some first edition paperbacks - Lewis's 'Screwtape Letters', Orwell's '1984' were in there amongst others - for around twenty cents each to see index cards inside with full details of the donation to a well known University here in Adelaide and the details of what the person wanted done with those books. Guess what? Ten years later they're sitting at a Salvation Army jumble sale. Now they're safe on my book shelf.

Mind you I've had my own bad experience. In 2002 I was shopping at a little (now defunct) bookstore here in Adelaide when I found two beat-up old scrapbooks. I had a more detailed look and found that they were scrapbooks full of clippings detailing the Australia v England Ashes tours of 1929 and 1930-31. Anyone who knows their cricket will know exactly what they mean - Sir Donald Bradman's first ever series and his first UK tour. And yep, all original clippings, painstakingly cut and pasted onto the pages. Little black books, leather bound, one with the cover coming off. I bought them both and took them home.

In a moment of insanity (you'll learn why I now consider it insanity) in early 2004 I decided to loan the books to the Bradman Museum here in Adelaide. I walked in and spoke with the then curator, Barry Gibbs. Nice guy. We spent the better part of the afternoon talking cricket and looking at the books - he was impressed as there were clippings in the book that didn't appear to be in Bradman's own (huge) collection. Barry asked what did I want to do, I said that I'd like to loan them to the museum so that they could use them. Barry pointed out that the charter clearly said that the goods in the museum had to come from Bradman's own collection - no problems. I told him that he was welcome to copy the books and that the State Library could use them, but I would want them back. Barry agreed and off we went.

About a year went by and I'd heard nothing. I called a few times but got no call back. One of the people who worked there told me that Barry was quite ill so I thought, "Well I'll hold back and wait til he gets better." Sadly he didn't and in April 2006 he passed away. Again, nice guy. I let some time pass (I didn't want to appear to be ghoulish) and then contacted the museum.

I got a phone call from the new person in charge. "What books? We don't have any books here and we have no record of them." My blood froze. I explained what had happened and was told, sorry, no books, can't help you. My guess is that either someone stole them or that Barry might have accidentally taken them home and now they're part of his estate - but let me make it clear, I don't blame Barry nor do I believe he stole the books. I now keep looking on eBay and in the major cricket auctions for them, because if they turn up I'm going to be making contact and claiming stolen goods. Part of me also wants to lodge a police report, but I think I'll go back down to the museum this week (no call back, as expected) and see if I can't find out some more.

I tell you, when I die my collection isn't going to any museum, university or any other such 'charitable' institution. It's all going to the kids - they can sell it, burn it or do whatever they want with it. I'm betting they'll sell it, cash in and have some fun. As they should. Donations? I'll give money and goods for sale, but no more 'loans'. Too many horror stories like Sterankos and my own experiences just make me not want to go anywhere near them. After all someone is going to make some cash from my books.

1 comment:

Lee said...

You have to tell us how you go with the museum!