A Blanket Indictment

When it did--at Sotheby's--the museum sued.
Carpenter contends--quite heatedly--that the couple's purchase of the textiles in 1970 was a legitimate deal, the result of the prior, also legitimate deal between a dealer and the DAM's official curator. In 1971, when de Menil had asked Terasaki to send provenance, or proof, of the textiles' origins, he'd provided a handwritten confirmation, along with a typed notation of the pieces' museum background. Although neither document was on DAM letterhead, in the course of the lawsuit, a typewriter expert testified that the type on the list matched the type on the museum's catalogue cards. And while the card for RN-92-P did not note any official deaccession--at one point, two lines were drawn through it, with the notation "missing 1975" added--the card for RN-99-G, another Navajo textile, said that piece had been deaccessioned twice. Any confusion over the sale was an obvious clerical error, Carpenter says: The museum had mistakenly noted RN-92-P's 1970 deaccession on the card for RN-99-G. (In fact, that card says 99-G went to Economos--when it actually was traded to the University of Colorado in 1972.)

"You don't deaccession a piece like this on purpose," responds Blomberg. "It's akin to selling the Mona Lisa."

The museum's lawyers argue that the notation on RN-99-G was not a mistake, but an attempt to hide "a deliberate covert transfer by Feder to his friend Economos." Feder's dead, so he can't speak for himself, and Conn died in 1998--but Economos showed up at the two-day trial to defend the sale. During that time period, he said, there were "rarely funds available for acquisition to the museum, and so curators would scour the museum" for objects to exchange. That was how the textile deal happened--with Bach's blessing, he told the court.

It's not fair for the museum to rewrite history now, Carpenter says. If the museum was so concerned about its missing masterpiece, why did a 1975 inventory fail to note its absence? Why did no one look for it until 1997? And how dare the museum even suggest that he or de Menil might have been party to any scheme--particularly when the DAM had made other boneheaded deaccessioning decisions before, and has since?

A magistrate must now untangle this web of charges and counter-charges, of decades-old actions and even older art. The truth--and $370,000--hangs by a thread.

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