Court Blocks Va. College's Art Sale

By Jerry Markon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 17, 2007

The Virginia Supreme Court said yesterday that Randolph College can't auction off four paintings from its beloved art collection -- at least not for six months.

What happens after that, nobody knows.

The high court's three-page order did not give a reason for upholding the temporary injunction. Those who sued the Lynchburg college to block the sale, including alumnae, students and parents, hailed the ruling as a victory.

"We are absolutely elated by this turn of events," said Anne Yastremski, executive director of Preserve Educational Choice, which the court said must post a $1 million bond to cover possible financial losses to the college.

Brenda Edson, a Randolph spokeswoman, said the college was disappointed by the court's decision but "will continue to do what is necessary to ensure the college's future." After the six-month period, she said, "we will take another look at whether we will continue an auction of the paintings."

The school wants to sell the paintings -- which are worth an estimated $32 million to $45 million and include the George Bellows masterpiece "Men of the Docks" -- to help prop up its ailing finances. Last year, the 116-year-old college was put on warning by an accrediting agency for spending too much of its $140 million endowment. In an effort to boost enrollment, school officials began admitting men for the first time this fall, and they also decided to sell a portion of the art collection.

But three school officials resigned in protest, and a group of alumnae, students and others filed suit in Lynchburg Circuit Court to block the sale. Things got so heated that school officials last month removed the four paintings from the Maier Museum of Art on campus. They were securely wrapped, placed in an unmarked van and driven away under police guard. They had been scheduled for sale later this month at Christie's, the New York City auction house.

The college's $100 million collection of American art, which dates to 1920, includes works by Edward Hopper, Georgia O'Keeffe and William Merritt Chase. Displayed for decades in common rooms and open hallways, the works have been a part of the college's core identity, opponents of the sale say. The other paintings designated for sale are: "A Peaceable Kingdom" (1840-1845) by Edward Hicks; "Through the Arroyo" by Ernest Martin Hennings (early 20th century); and Rufino Tamayo's "Troubador" (1945).

The Supreme Court ruling upheld the circuit court's decision granting the injunction.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company