French painter Edouard Mac'Avoy's claim that he is the owner of 18 paintings and 41 drawings by American expatriate Romaine Brooks now in the Smithsonian's Museum of American Art was denied Monday by a federal judge. Mac'Avoy, who lives in Paris, has 60 days to file an appeal.
The judge ruled, in essence, that Mac'Avoy raised his claim to the artworks too late under U.S. law. His Washington lawyer, Tom Klein of Andrews & Kurth, said Tuesday that the law firm would study U.S. District Judge Thomas F. Hogan's decision and consult with Mac'Avoy before deciding whether to appeal. A similar suit in the Tribunal de Grande Instance in Paris has yet to be decided.
"We are thrilled with the court decision," said Elizabeth Broun, the museum's director. "Brooks was a great American symbolist painter, a bridge between the aestheticism of Whistler and the more radical modernism of the teens and '20s. But nobody painted the way she did. She was a true individual." Two of the disputed works of Brooks, a self-portrait of 1923 showing her in a black hat and suit wearing the French Legion of Honor, and a 1904 painting of a charwoman, are currently hanging in the Museum of American Art.
Mac'Avoy, now almost 87, knew Brooks in France from 1935 until her death in 1970. In the suit, he claims that he bought the paintings, along with her Nice apartments, on April 27, 1966 -- though she retained a life interest in both. He agreed to act as curator of her artworks. Brooks, however, had the month before written the Smithsonian "confirming her intention to give five of her paintings" to the institution, Hogan noted. In 1967, 1968 and 1969, Brooks agreed to send more. David Scott, director of what was then called the National Collection of Fine Arts, wrote several times thanking Brooks for the gifts, according to Smithsonian Assistant General Counsel Elaine L. Johnston.
The Smithsonian mounted a major Romaine Brooks show, "Thief of Souls," in March 1971, a few months after her death. Not until 1983 did Mac'Avoy write the museum claiming ownership of 11 of the artworks and asking that they be returned. In a 1989 letter, Mac'Avoy claimed all the Brooks artworks in the Smithsonian belonged to him. He has said that he believed the works had been only lent to the Smithsonian.