Howard University Says Black Madonna at Sotheby’s Was Stolen

Howard University Says Black Madonna at Sotheby’s Was Stolen

Howard University sued a South Carolina couple to recover a drawing by renowned African-American artist Charles White that it says was stolen from its collection more than four decades ago.

In its lawsuit filed Friday in federal court in New York, the historically Black Washington university said the work, “Centralia Madonna,” a 24-inch-by-32-inch depiction of an African-American Madonna figure, disappeared from its collection in the 1970s. It only resurfaced in May when Sotheby’s contacted the school about the work’s provenance ahead of its planned inclusion in an “American Art” auction.

Howard University Says Black Madonna at Sotheby’s Was Stolen

White, who died in 1979, was the subject of a major retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art from October 2018 to January 2019, which included several pieces held by Howard. Sotheby’s has estimated the value of “Centralia Madonna” at $300,000 to $500,000, according to the suit.

The drawing was consigned to Sotheby’s by Larry and Virginia Borders, who say they received the painting as a gift from a friend in 1972. Paul Cossu, a lawyer for the couple said they didn’t object when the auction house contacted Howard but were “shocked’ to learn of the university’s claim. They were working in good faith to resolve the matter when Howard went ahead and filed its lawsuit based on “speculation” and “slanderous inferences,” the lawyer said.

“The Borders are an elderly African-American couple that has lived with, and loved, the Charles White artwork for nearly all of the almost 50 years of their marriage,” Cossu said. He added that the couple still hoped to reach a fair resolution but was “appalled at the how the University has handled this so far.”

Howard says the couple can’t provide any paperwork or documentation to show how the work came into their friend’s possession. According to the school, they refused repeated requests to return the work, which remains at Sotheby’s in New York.

“Sotheby’s is merely a third-party stakeholder and will comply with any decision of the court,” the auction house said in a statement.

Howard says it purchased the drawing in 1947, two years after White finished a stint as artist-in-residence at the school. According to the university, the work was still in its collection in 1974, when it was viewed and documented by a graduate student who is now the assistant director of Howard’s art museum.

The couple’s “claims are all the more implausible given that Howard University has never sold or de-accessioned any work from its collection, and would certainly not sell or de-accession a work by Charles White, a hugely significant Black artist with strong ties to the university,” Howard said in its lawsuit.

In addition to purchasing several of his works, Howard appointed White to a three-year professorship shortly before his death.

The case is Howard University v Borders, 20-cv-4716, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York (Manhattan).

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