Law and Ardor

Ted Carpenter is a sore winner.
"I find it depressing that the Denver Art Museum did what they did and the press either protected them or stood aside," he says.

Underlying that blanket statement is a peculiar saga that says a lot about the way museums and collectors did business decades ago--and says still more about the Denver Art Museum's current legal practices ("A Blanket Indictment," June 3).

Back in 1970, Adelaide de Menil, Carpenter's wife and a member of the much-collecting (and donating) de Menil family, bought several Native American textiles from a New York dealer. The finest piece was a Navajo blanket, which the dealer told her had recently been deaccessioned from the Denver Art Museum's collection--and he later sent along documents that he said proved it.

That was good enough for de Menil and Carpenter, who hung the blankets from the beams of their eighteenth-century farmhouse on Long Island. And there they stayed until a few years ago, when the couple suddenly realized they had $1.5 million worth of textiles hanging overhead that could easily go up in smoke. So they decided to protect the pieces by selling them off.

In late 1997, while riffling through a Sotheby's catalogue, DAM Native Art curator Nancy Blomberg recognized one of the de Menil blankets as part of the museum's collection--a part noted as "missing" in the early Eighties, although the museum had never taken any action to find it.

Until November 26, 1997, that is, when the museum notified Sotheby's that the "Classic serape" scheduled for auction that December 4 was really a pilfered piece of the DAM's inventory. Sotheby's called Carpenter, who in turn contacted Blomberg. "I said I was faxing her all of our documents," he says. "She agreed to do the same."

Instead, on December 3, the museum's executive committee authorized DAM director Lewis Sharp to sue de Menil and Sotheby's. Minutes from that meeting note that the museum only wanted the object back--but Carpenter says DAM's attorney had already offered to split the proceeds of the sale. "Was he proposing to cut the blanket in half?" asks Carpenter, who's still steaming that the museum demanded he sign an agreement limiting legal claims "literally minutes before the serape was auctioned."

At the April 1999 trial on the suit, Carpenter tried to have minutes of that December 3 meeting, "as well as other evidence supporting our contention that the DAM acted in bad faith," introduced, but the museum's lawyer kept them out.

Still, de Menil's lawyers managed to present enough evidence to convince the New York-based U.S. magistrate hearing the case to decide against the museum. In her June 1 decision, Naomi Buchwald said that the museum had not proved its claim that the blanket was stolen.

But after Sotheby's took its cut of the $431,000 an anonymous purchaser paid for the piece, de Menil and Carpenter don't have much to show for the sale--other than Carpenter's very evident disgust. "This suit cost us $340,000," he wrote in a letter to the museum's executive board July 14. "After the trial, the Denver Post ran a silly, inaccurate article. The reporter asked by fax if we intended to donate the proceeds to a museum. She recommended this as a 'wise' (her word) decision. She further asked if we planned to continue supporting museums.

"I didn't reply then, but I will now: Yes, we will continue to support museums, but only those with honest staffs and responsible trustees."

Told you he was sore.

To air is human: Gary Ruskin took his recent defeat more gracefully--but then, the director of the Congressional Accountability Project knew he was fighting a losing battle.

"The House Ethics Committee is famous for protecting members of the House against charges of corruption," he says. "It's par for the course. People wonder why there's corruption in Congress. Well, a good place to start looking is the House Ethics Committee."

For over two years now, that committee has been looking into alleged improprieties by Pennsylvania representative Bud Shuster, the powerful head of the House Transportation Committee. And charged with heading the investigation is none other than Colorado congressman Joel Hefley. Because Shuster's committee holds sway over several projects important to Hefley's district, back in November 1997 Ruskin had asked Hefley to assign an outside counsel to conduct the investigation. He repeated that request this spring, when Congress was considering a Shuster bill that affects Centennial Airport ("The Friendly Skies," June 17). But while outside counsels have handled nearly half of the 48 ethics investigations involving U.S. representatives, the committee again refused to appoint one to finish up the Shuster probe.

Not to be confused with the now-defunct independent counsel statute that gave rise to Ken Starr, any House outside counsels are controlled by the ethics committee. "It's quite the opposite of a loose cannon," says Ruskin. "When they reject outside counsel, it's transparent what's happening...they're just protecting one of the most important members of Congress."

Prepare for a cash landing.

The hits just keep on coming: Chalk up another Columbine casualty--Boulder-based Paladin Enterprises, sued by the sister of a Maryland woman who was killed in March 1993 by a hit man allegedly following instructions outlined in Paladin's Hit Man ("If Books Could Kill," May 13).

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