ARTnewsletter Archive

$7M Sale of O’Keeffe Work Halted by Tennessee Official

On April 5, Tennessee attorney general Robert Cooper rejected Fisk University’s proposed sale of a Georgia O’Keeffe painting, to the Santa Fe, N.Mex., museum that bears her name, for $7 million.

NEW YORK—On April 5, Tennessee attorney general Robert Cooper rejected Fisk University’s proposed sale of a Georgia O’Keeffe painting, to the Santa Fe, N.Mex., museum that bears her name, for $7 million.

Cooper said that while the sale was a good deal for the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, it was “a bad deal financially for Fisk” and, moreover, “a one-sided settlement.”

The sale would have settled a lawsuit filed in early 2006 by the Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation against Fisk. The foundation claimed that the university’s plans to sell two paintings donated by O’Keeffe in 1949—her own oil Radiator Building, 1927, and Marsden Hartley’s Painting No. 3, 1913—violated the terms of the gift. “The sale was contrary to the expressed wishes of O’Keeffe,” Saul Cohen, board president of the O’Keeffe Museum, told ARTnewsletter.

Terms and Conditions

O’Keeffe donated a total of 101 artworks to Fisk, with the provision that all of them be kept together and never loaned or sold. Radiator Building and Painting No. 3 have a combined estimated value of $15/20 million and are considered the most valuable pieces in the collection.

Ongoing discussions between Fisk and the O’Keeffe museum continued for months, from March until November of last year. This eventually resulted in an agreement that called for the museum to purchase the O’Keeffe painting and allow the university to sell the Hartley, keeping whatever money was earned.

However, the state attorney general, who oversees all charitable organizations in Tennessee and may approve or deny plans to sell or transfer their assets, has final say over any agreement. In this instance, he requested a 30-day-notice period in which additional offers could be made.

During that notice period, reports C. Michael Norton, the attorney representing Fisk, “three or four art dealers contacted the school, offering to buy the painting [for] up to $25 million.”

Norton told ARTnewsletter that the $7 million offer from the O’Keeffe Museum seemed acceptable in November “because they had an appraisal of $8.5 million on it, and we figured that if we were to sell it for $8.5 million at auction, we would have to pay a commission. So $7 million seemed about right.”

Cites Higher Offers

But then, Norton says, “we started hearing that people were willing to pay $20 to $25 million for the work. When the attorney general heard about that, he turned the deal down flat.”

In his April 5 statement, attorney general Cooper wrote, “While we recognize that Fisk’s financial condition is and continues to be serious, it does not appear that, in the short term, the situation is so serious as to require Fisk to accept the discounted $7 million offer from the museum for the Radiator Building.”

Both Norton and Cohen now state that the original lawsuit will proceed to County Chancery Court, with a trial date set for July 18.

Fisk president Hazel R. O’Leary approved the sale in December 2005, sparking the lawsuit.

Fisk attorney Norton claims that state law permits changes in the terms of a gift “if you can prove your situation has changed substantially and it’s no longer practical or possible to conform to the conditions under which you’ve accepted a charitable gift.”

After the university had announced its intention to sell the two paintings, and the Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation and Museum brought a lawsuit, the Tennessee attorney general stepped in, siding with Fisk. Museum president Cohen rejected the notion that the offer for the O’Keeffe painting was a fire-sale price, observing that “$7 million is a stretch for us—it’s as much as we can do.”

Cohen adds, “We knew that an auction house could do better, and we knew that Fisk had received offers for more. But, the fact is, if Fisk breached the condition of the bequest Georgia O’Keeffe made, it was obligated to just give the work to the museum, which would have been much worse for them than selling it for $7 million.

“The $7 million would help Fisk to carry on, and it would give the painting to a museum, where it likely belongs,” he adds.

Last year the Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation turned over the bulk of its assets, including 1,600 works of art and the artist’s home in Abiquiu, New Mexico, to the museum.