Lawyer a champion of artists, poets, activists


Ira M. Lowe, bottom left, a socially connected Georgetown lawyer who specialized in art litigation and was also involved in progressive activism including the rights of political prisoners abroad and prison reform in the United States, died June 11 at his home in Washington. He was 88. (Edith Blake)
June 21, 2012

Ira M. Lowe, an iconoclastic Georgetown lawyer who represented eminent painters and sculptors, the foremost Beatnik poet and a Watergate felon, and whose estate work helped set an influential legal precedent for artists, died June 11 at his home in Washington. He was 88.

He died of kidney disease, said Rebecca Lockwood, a lawyer who worked with Mr. Lowe for the past eight years.

A specialist in art litigation, Mr. Lowe operated his law practice from his Georgetown residence since 1949 and immersed himself in the city’s cultural milieu.

At embassy soirees and cocktail parties, he cut an unusual figure. He fashioned himself a bon vivant but, with his full black beard he resembled the hirsute counterculture figures of the 1960s and ’70s who had once been among his clientele, including the poet Allen Ginsberg.

Mr. Lowe owned a Jaguar, but he rode his Harley-Davidson motorcycle to court. Using Freedom of Information Act requests, he helped Ginsberg, Jane Fonda, Joan Baez, Tom Hayden and other activists obtain their FBI, CIA and State Department records. In 1967, he persuaded prosecutors to drop a charge of marijuana possession against the son of author John Steinbeck.

Mr. Lowe’s work for those clients was linked closely to his own left-wing sympathies and organizing activities, which included years spent agitating for prison reform and on behalf of political prisoners abroad.

He developed friendships with prominent artists and arts patrons, including thefinancier and museum benefactor Joseph H. Hirshhorn and his widow, Olga. From unestablished artists too poor to pay for his services, Mr. Lowe accepted paintings, sculptures and sketches as compensation and displayed the works in his office.

Over the years, Mr. Lowe represented the painters Tom Downing and Kenneth Noland and sculptors David Smith, Louise Bourgeois, Hilda Thorpe and Ella Tulin, the last of whom was once his companion. Mr. Lowe’s work for Smith proved important in the field of art law.

Four years after Smith’s death in 1965, the Internal Revenue Service challenged the estate’s $714,000 valuation of 425 unsold Smith works. The tax agency assessed a fair market value of $5.4 million, which would have slapped an exorbitant charge on the estate.

Along with art critic Clement Greenberg and artist Robert Motherwell, Mr. Lowe was an executor of the Smith estate. He argued for what is known as a blockage discount, noting that the hypothetical sale of all the works at one time would flood the market and thereby drastically reduce their retail value.

In 1972, the U.S. Tax Court made what it labeled a “Solomon-like pronouncement” and placed a $2.7 valuation on the Smith works. The court did not elaborate on its decision, which set an important precedent affecting later cases by the estates of Georgia O’Keeffe and other artists.

Ira Melvin Lowe was born in Boston on March 5, 1924. His father, Isadore — born in Russia and educated at Harvard Law School — moved the family to Washington in 1934 and spent his legal career at the Agriculture Department.

The younger Lowe was a 1941 graduate of Woodrow Wilson High School. After Navy service in the South Pacific during World War II, he graduated from George Washington University law school in 1949.

An early marriage, to Ora Becker, ended in divorce. Survivors include a sister, Tena Rips of Silver Spring.

In 1959, Mr. Lowe served as an American Bar Association representative in Havana at the invitation of the new Fidel Castro government. He and others witnessed the trials of former supporters of dictator Fulgencio Batista. Many of the accused were subsequently executed.

Mr. Lowe was among a group of prominent lawyers who traveled to Chile in 1974 as international observers of the trials of more than 60 Chilean air force officers accused of treason by the new Pinochet regime. The other lawyers included U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark and Martin Garbus, a human rights activist and First Amendment specialist.

Many of the Chileans, including Gen. Alberto Bachelet, received long prison terms and died under questionable circumstances while in custody.

“When we left Chile, I felt we had totally wasted our time,” Garbus said in an interview Thursday. But the presence of legal witnesses like Mr. Lowe, who can speak out and write about what they observed, can serve as a “pinprick of light in terribly, terribly dark times,” he said.

Mr. Lowe also championed prison reform. Incarceration, he said, “should be the last alternative, not the first” for nonviolent offenders.

That was his argument when he served as an attorney in 1975 for Richard Nixon’s presidential aide John D. Ehrlichman, a key player in the Watergate scandal. Mr. Lowe asked that his client, who had been a land-use lawyer, avoid prison and instead perform public service by providing legal advice to a group of Pueblo Indians in New Mexico.

Ehrlichman, who was disbarred, was convicted of conspiracy and other charges and served 18 months in federal prison.

Mr. Lowe divided his time between Washington and a second home on Martha’s Vineyard, Mass. His long residency in Georgetown made him an authority on the neighborhood’s codes of social conduct.

Once, he told the Washington Times, he was refused service at a local restaurant because he was not wearing a tie. Ever the lawyer, he removed one of his socks, knotted it around his neck and argued that he was in compliance.

“I’m sorry,” the maitre d’ replied. “We don’t seat men with only one sock, either.”

Adam Bernstein has spent his career putting the "post" in Washington Post, first as an obituary writer and then as editor. The American Society of Newspaper Editors recognized Bernstein’s ability to exhume “the small details and anecdotes that get at the essence of the person” and to write stories that are “complex yet stylish.”
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