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Adams Heirs Sue Fresno Museum over Donated Photos

The heirs of Ansel Adams have filed a lawsuit against a California museum for violating the terms of a gift of six photos they made to the museum more than 25 years ago.

NEW YORK—The heirs of Ansel Adams have filed a lawsuit against a California museum for violating the terms of a gift of six photos they made to the museum more than 25 years ago. The suit is one of a number of recent disputes over whether museums have the right to deaccession or financially exploit certain works. In this case, however, the institution has already closed and is in the process of selling off its holdings, rather than trying to raise funds for operating costs or new acquisitions.

Adams’s son and daughter-in-law, Michael S. Adams and Jeanne Falk Adams, filed a complaint against the Fresno Metropolitan Museum of Art and Science in California State Superior Court on March 1. According to the complaint, the museum, which is a California nonprofit corporation, “ceased doing business on or about January 5, 2010 and is in the process of liquidating its assets.”

According to their lawsuit, Adams’s heirs were the owners of “a Museum Set of six Ansel Adams prints,” which they donated to the museum in 1983. (In 1989, the complaint says, the museum and the Adamses agreed to exchange one print for another of a different image, and the terms of the original donation were applied to the traded work.)

The complaint states that in February 1983, the Fresno museum presented a “Declaration of Gift” specifying the terms of the donation to the heirs for review, “with the portion of the Declaration that reads ‘and understand that the Directors are at liberty to use or dispose of this property at their unrestricted discretion’ stricken out.” The complaint says that “Dr. Adams executed the Declaration of the Gift” about a day after receiving it, and that a museum representative initialed the crossed-out clause in the agreement.

After learning that the museum would be liquidating its art collection to pay off its creditors, the lawsuit says, the Adams heirs requested that the prints be returned, since they “did not agree to allow for their unrestricted disposition.”

According to the complaint, on Feb. 11 the museum’s counsel notified the artists’ heirs that it believes that the gift of the Adams prints was “absolute and unconditional, with the Plaintiffs retaining no reversionary rights, and as such, the Met believes that it may sell the Adams Prints to satisfy its creditors’ claims.”

The artist’s heirs have asked the museum to “refrain from disposing of the Adams’ prints by way of auction and return” the prints to them.

Riley Walter, of Walter & Wilhelm Law Group, Fresno, attorney for the museum, declined to comment. The plaintiffs are represented by René Lastreto II and Melody Hawkins, of Lang, Richert & Patch, Fresno. Neither attorney would comment on the case.

The complaint includes a copy of the signed declaration of the gift, stamped as having been “received Feb 7, 1983,” with a black line through the disputed clause.

The Fresno Metropolitan Museum was founded in 1979, and was housed in the former headquarters of the Fresno Bee, after the newspaper had moved and a local philanthropist persuaded the paper’s owners, the McClatchy family, to donate the building for use as an art center.

In 2004, the museum embarked on an expensive renovation, which was marred by construction delays and cost overruns. It was supposed to have been closed for a year, according to a lengthy report in the Fresno Bee earlier this month; instead, it did not reopen to the public until late 2008, after having been closed for more than three years. The report also says the museum had long struggled with financial difficulties and a lack of sufficient oversight of the direction of the institution.

A message left at the Fresno Metropolitan Museum, where a recording informs callers that the museum “has closed to the public” but urges them “to continue supporting the arts within our community,” was not returned.

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