FLATIRON — One of the country's preeminent private collections of African art is set to reopen this week — even as it remains entrenched in a legal dispute regarding the alleged selling of hundreds of pieces of fine art and claims of poor treatment to one-of-a-kind tribal pieces.
The Merton D. Simpson Gallery, named for and founded by the abstract and expressionist painter who amassed a large collection of African art, is hosting an exhibition of major works by the late, acclaimed street artist Purvis Young Wednesday as part of its reopening.
Titled "Angels: Chained and Unchained," the show will feature 22 of Young's paintings from the 1970s to the 2000s. A handful of African tribal sculptures and masks from Simpson's own collection will also be on display.
"It feels amazing," said gallery director Alaina Simone, who has run the gallery on and off since 2011, before being brought on again in June. "We had to re-sand all the floors, we repainted downstairs. You try not to make it an emotional experience, but you put so much into it."
The exhibition marks the gallery's first show since it was slapped with an eviction notice for failing to make rent on March 1 — eight days before its namesake and founder died after a long struggle with illness, including diabetes, at 84. The gallery was ultimately never evicted and managed to pay its rent in order to stay, its operators said.
"He's what you call a true Renaissance man," said his son, Merton Jr.. "He definitely was a genius. That word is thrown around loosely, but it definitely fits him. He had several hundred paintings that he'd done himself, a large collection of masters and contemporary pieces, artifacts from all over the world."
By 2013, the Simpson Gallery had amassed a collection worth more than $5 million, according to Merton Jr., Simone and court papers. But as the artist's health declined, and family members began to tussle for control of his assets and legacy, the gallery fell into disrepair and eventually serious debt.
A court-appointed guardian, Ann Pinciss Berman, who had been tapped in March 2012 to help represent Simpson and sort his affairs during his final months, was put in charge of running the gallery. Simone and Merton Jr. allege in court papers that she contributed to the loss of the gallery's collection by selling off hundreds of pieces at desperately low prices.
"One stone [from Sierra Leone] equaled about $250,000, [but] they were selling boxes of stones for $800," Simone recounted. Meanwhile, "Merton wasn't here. He was sick."
By comparison, when Simone served as the gallery's director, she was able to make more than $340,000 in art sales, she claims in an affidavit.
"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 court filing.
"The artwork back there, the tribal art, was beyond anything I'd ever seen," she added during an interview with DNAinfo New York. "The paintings were smushed together, icons were on top of them. It looked like an art crime."
Berman is no longer running the gallery, and said "we wish them well" when asked for comment. She is also seeking to recoup expenses for the guardianship through continued sales of art work.
"I have been serving as guardian in this case for over 18 months, and it has cost me a great deal of money," Berman said, adding all the sales of the works went to cover expenses at the gallery. "The guardianship had a lot of expenses, and not all of them were covered, because the gallery didn't produce enough."
The gallery remains in debt — Simone, Merton Jr. and Berman all declined to say how much — but Simone admitted the amount was "less than a million." Of 3,500 to 4,000 pieces that had been on hand this spring, about 3,000 remain, including "several hundred" by Simpson himself, Merton Jr. said.
The exact number remains unknown, Simone said, because the gallery has not yet done an inventory of its holdings.
"We don't even know which pieces were sold in the fire sales because we don't even have receipts," she said. "They bought pieces with cash and didn't even have an invoice. I have no clue."
Nevertheless, she and Merton Jr. emphasized that the gallery stands on much firmer ground now than it did just a few months before. Notably, Simone pointed out, it just inked a two-year lease on its building on West 28th Street.
"We're not liquidating," she emphasized. "We're just selling artwork."
Merton Jr. said he was optimistic about the future of the new space.
"He was at the vanguard of the abstract expressionist movement," he said of his father. "I think his work is, over time, going to be recognized and given the due that it's owed."