Brooklyn Museum Loses Out on Valuable Sculpture After Missing Deadline

By James Fanelli on August 28, 2013 6:48am 

 This wooden sculpture dates to the later 19th Century and was crafted by a member of the Songye tribe in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo. The Brooklyn Museum missed out on acquiring the piece because it responded too late to a donor.
This wooden sculpture dates to the later 19th Century and was crafted by a member of the Songye tribe in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo. The Brooklyn Museum missed out on acquiring the piece because it responded too late to a donor.
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University of Wollongong

PROSPECT HEIGHTS — The Brooklyn Museum missed out on acquiring a prized African sculpture — all because it was five days late in responding to a stickler donor’s deadline, DNAinfo New York has learned.

The donor, Dr. Roger Mosesson, initially lent the artwork to the museum for a 10-year period in 2005 but, on Nov. 29, 2010, he overnighted a letter to the museum offering the piece as a gift.

The giveaway came with a catch — the museum had to send him a formal acceptance letter within 30 days.

It seems the museum let those days slip by.

On Dec. 9 the museum’s board approved the acquisition of the sculpture and signed a deed of gift. Then weeks passed without any action.

Finally, on Dec. 30, a Thursday, the museum drafted a formal letter accepting the work of art. The letter was placed in the museum’s outbox, where it remained for the entire New Year’s weekend, only getting mailed on Jan. 3.

When Mosesson received the letter, the museum was five days past the deadline. An apparent stickler for rules, the Upper West Side radiologist rescinded his offer and demanded the return of the sculpture, known as Songye Wood Standing Male.

The museum acknowledged its mistake, but balked at returning the art piece, leading to a two-year legal battle over ownership in Manhattan Surrogate’s Court.

In a June 2011 legal filing, Judith Frankfurt, a deputy director at the museum, said the museum asked Mosesson how the four-day delay hurt him and offered to compensate him for any injuries, but he never responded.

Frankfurt added that if the court sided with Mosesson, then the real losers would be the museum-goers who wouldn't get to view the exquisite 24-inch dark wooden sculpture lacquered in palm oil.

The museum has the largest collection of African art in an American art museum. Frankfurt called the Songye sculpture a “unique, enormously valuable work of art [that] is central to the museum’s African art collection.”

The sculpture was created in the late 19th century by a member of the Songye tribe in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. A disciple of a renowned African artist known as the Master of Muyemba is believed to have carved it, according to the museum.

“The public should not be punished for the museum’s brief, inadvertent delay in its acceptance of the gift,” Frankfurt said.

An appeal to the public good didn’t sway Judge Kristen Booth Glen, who decided in September 2011 in favor of Mosesson. An appellate court upheld Glen’s ruling in November 2012.

Even after the decisions, the legal squabble continued. This spring Mosesson claimed that the museum still had not delivered the statue to him and asked the court to fine the museum $500 a day until it did.

The museum responded that the sculpture had been packed up and placed in storage, but he had to come pick it up.

The battle was finally resolved earlier this month. Brooklyn Museum spokeswoman Sally Williams told DNAinfo New York that Mosesson came to collect the sculpture.

“There is really nothing to add,” Williams said in an email.

Mosesson and his lawyer did not respond to requests for comment.

The doctor acquired the sculpture in an equally unusual manner. It was part of a large inheritance he received from the late abstract artist Beatrice Riese.

Riese, who had amassed an extensive collection of African art, died at 86 in 2004. In the late 1990s, Mosesson, then in his mid-30s, befriended Riese after they met at an art gallery, according to court records.

In a 2000 will, Riese intended to give most of her art collection to the Brooklyn Museum. A year before her death, Riese changed her will, making Mosesson the executor and leaving her art collection to him, court records say.

The revised will surprised Riese’s family, who urged the Brooklyn Museum to challenge it. Eventually, the museum reached a deal with Mosesson in 2005 in which he agreed to loan it 14 pieces of art for 10 years, including the Songye sculpture.

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