A Blanket Indictment

Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive.
This story is not about money.
How could it be, when Adelaide de Menil and her husband, Ted Carpenter, have so much that it's falling from the sky--or, technically, the beams of their eighteenth-century Long Island farmhouse, which for 25 years were draped with what would turn into $1.5 million worth of Navajo blankets?

No, this is not about money, says Carpenter, an anthropologist who's traveled the world, accumulating rare and wonderful objects and then selling or donating them to museums. It's about the sordid, mid-century traffic in Native American artifacts, before many collectors recognized that the pieces were truly works of art. It's about incompetent cultural bureaucracies that not only encouraged greed but sometimes allowed outright thievery--resulting in a wholesale looting of this country's native heritage. It is not about money.

But money is all that's left in the Denver Art Museum's lawsuit against Adelaide de Menil, one of those de Menils, who've donated so much of their oil-based wealth to cultural institutions in Texas. The Navajo blanket that's the focus of the case is long gone, snapped up at a December 4, 1997, Sotheby's auction by an anonymous purchaser, who took the item listed as "Early and Rare Classic Navajo Man's Wearing Blanket" and left $431,500 behind. Of that, $370,000 is slated to go to the winner of the suit, due to be decided any day by a New York-based U.S. magistrate judge.

Nancy Blomberg, current curator of the DAM's Native Art collection, was thumbing through a Sotheby's catalogue in November 1997 when she saw a full-color photograph of an "extraordinary textile," a magnificent, familiar-looking blanket. Although she hadn't seen the actual piece before, or even the photo, she recognized it from black-and-white shots and a color drawing of a blanket declared "missing" in the museum's comprehensive 1982 inventory. "When I came to the museum in 1990," she says, "I tried to familiarize myself with the collections, and I noticed what was missing." Even with a collection containing 17,000 Native American pieces, she'd taken particular note of this artifact's absence, since nineteenth-century Navajo blankets are her specialty.

The blanket's early years are a literal blank. Some immensely skilled Navajo weaver spent hours, days, perhaps months creating it over a century ago; it was intended to be worn by a male member of the tribe. But at some point, the blanket passed out of Navajo hands. In the Twenties, Frank Applegate bought it from a Mexican family in New Mexico; Applegate's daughter subsequently sold it to Kohlberg's, a defunct Denver antiques store, which set its value at $9,000. In 1950, the Denver Art Museum purchased the blanket from Kohlberg's for $650, adding it to the museum's Native Arts collection under catalogue number RN-92-P. The corresponding catalogue card has a color drawing of the blanket on the back; the front bears this description: "approx 7x5 feet, Red bayeta, blue and white handspun. One of the supreme Navaho blankets in existence."

The DAM, which opened just seventeen years after Colorado became a state, was the country's first art museum to feature a Native American collection. That's what made it so attractive to "professional raiders," says Carpenter. "In the late Sixties, they ripped off one museum after another in America. Denver was particularly vulnerable because it had such a good collection. Museums treated these objects like seashells." When Carpenter was on the board of the Heye Museum, now part of the National Museum of the American Indian at the Smithsonian, he alerted New York's attorney general to the fact that 91,000 pieces were missing, many through pilferage. But in most cases, the deals were perfectly legal--museums freely swapped and sold Native American pieces in order to acquire other pieces, keeping only haphazard records.

In 1970 alone, the DAM conducted more than a hundred transactions with James Economos, a Denver dealer specializing in Native American Indian, pre-Columbian, African and Oceanic art. The DAM's director, the late Otto Carl Bach, had met Economos when the future wheeler-dealer was eight years old; Economos later became a personal friend of Native Arts curator Norman Feder, with whom he did most of his deals.

The arrangement was cozy. Economos sold things for the museum, he donated things to the museum, and in October 1970, he made a trade with the museum: In exchange for $2,000 and assorted goods, including a Winnebago war bundle that Feder badly wanted for his department, the museum sold six textiles to Economos--$9,336 worth of objects, according to museum records. Later that month, Economos sold six textiles to George Terasaki, a New York City dealer. In November 1970, Adelaide de Menil bought them from Terasaki, noting on her check that the $16,000 paid for "six Navajo blankets from Denver Museum." And for the next 27 years, the blankets hung from the rafters of that farmhouse, until Carpenter and de Menil realized the pieces were vulnerable to fire and decided to auction off the more valuable ones at Sotheby's.

Yes, the arrangement between Feder and Economos was cozy--and the museum now claims it was crooked.

After Blomberg saw the Sotheby's ad, she called Richard Conn, Feder's successor--and her predecessor--in Native Arts. After she told Conn she'd found the missing textile, Blomberg says,he said he'd "always questioned the method of its leaving the museum." When Conn had asked Bach about the blanket's whereabouts, the DAM's director had suggested it was misplaced during the museum's move into its new, permanent home in 1971. It would turn up, Bach said.

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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