FLATIRON DISTRICT — The West 28th Street gallery of the late artist Merton Simpson is being evicted — and thousands of pieces of artwork worth more than $5 million may be tossed to the curb, his son says.
Merton Simpson Jr., the renowned painter and collector's son, claims in court papers that a guardian put in charge of his father's estate is running the Flatiron gallery into the ground and failing to conduct a proper inventory and appraisal of its 3,500 to 4,000 art pieces.
The gallery has been so poorly managed that its former director had to carry rare artwork on her lap to the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., because it lacked cash for shipping, according to court papers filed last week in Manhattan Surrogate's Court.
Simpson Jr. accuses the guardian, Ann Pinciss Berman, of firing the gallery director in March and causing artwork sales to drop precipitously. Without cash to pay the rent, the landlord slapped the gallery with an eviction notice on March 1.
"I am aware the guardian has not paid the gallery rent and all art contents valued at millions of dollars are at risk of being thrown out on the street," Simpson Jr. said a court filing.
Merton Simpson died at 84 on March 9, leaving behind what many consider one of the preeminent collections of African and tribal art. Simpson not only created his own work, but acquired rare antiques and museum-quality pieces from Africa, North America and the South Pacific.
Simpson Jr. — who lives in Albany and serves in the county's legislature — was given power of attorney for his father in 2011, but family members subsequently accused him of neglecting the gallery and laying off dedicated workers. After a legal squabble over the mismanagement ensued, a Manhattan judge appointed Berman, an estate lawyer, as guardian in March 2012.
At the time of his death, Simpson held a treasure trove of art worth millions, but had little cash on hand. His family spent three weeks searching for money to cover the cost of his burial, according to The New York Times.
While Simpson's will names his son as an executor of the estate, it hasn't been legally validated and Berman remains the caretaker.
In his court filing last week, Simpson Jr. asked a judge to order Berman to cede control of the gallery to him.
The fired gallery director, Alaina Simone, backed up Simpson Jr. in an affidavit attached to the filing, claiming the collection was in shambles when she started work there in March 2012.
"I was surprised to find it in such a poor state, and so little business being transacted," she said.
Eventually, she made more than $340,000 in artwork sales — but not with Berman's help, the affidavit says.
"The guardian was managing the gallery so poorly I had to carry rare pieces of art on my lap to the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C., because she said the gallery lacked the funds to wait for proper shipping," Simone said in the filing.
Simone also claims that in January the gallery had no heat and Simpson's life work of collecting the history of African art was scattered in boxes in a stock room. Berman also showed indifference to Simpson's work and stated several times, "This art does nothing for me," the affidavit says.
The judge ultimately denied Simpson Jr.'s request, noting that the will has not yet been validated.
Berman's lawyer did not respond to a request for comment. But in a legal filing in March, Berman raised concerns about Simpson Jr. and his plans to haul away the gallery's art and archives to an undisclosed location without proper insurance.
Simpson Jr. also did not return a request for comment.