Art law Controversies News USA

Guggenheim Foundation refutes family members’ accusations

The New York organisation says the lawsuit brought by two of Peggy Guggenheim’s grandchildren is “frivolous” and that they “repeatedly contradict their own position”

The New York organisation says Peggy Guggenheim donated her Venice home "to demonstrate her admiration for the activities carried out by The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation"

The Solmon R. Guggenheim Foundation in New York has issued a detailed rebuttal to claims made against the organisation by descendants of Peggy Guggenheim who are suing the foundation in France.

After Peggy Guggenheim’s death in 1979, her home on the Grand Canal in Venice and the art it contained were given to the foundation so it could be run as a museum.

Now the late collector’s grandchildren, Sandro Rumney and Nicolas Hélion, who are the sons of Peggy’s only daughter Pegeen Vail (who predeceased her mother) allege that the foundation has failed to comply with the conditions under which the gift of the palace and the art were made.

Rumney and Hélion say Peggy Guggenheim stipulated that her collection should remain intact and on display and that the foundation has ignored this by accepting the gifts of art from other collectors, such as Rudolph and Hannelore Schulhof, whose names are now inscribed on the museum walls alongside Peggy Guggenheim’s.

In its statement, the foundation says that Peggy Guggenheim “stated only one purpose for [her] donations [of palace and art] in her deeds of gift: ‘to demonstrate her admiration for the activities carried out by The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation… concerning the study, the divulgation and the knowledge of… Modern works of art, and with the purpose of expanding and fostering such activities in Italy.”

The foundation further points out that Peggy Guggenheim left her entire estate to her son Sindbad Vail, who was her only surviving child, and who was also his late mother’s executor. Rumney and Hélion were not Peggy’s heirs, and were not mentioned in her will, the foundation says.

According to the foundation, the children of Vail are not participating in the lawsuit; they have “expressed disappointment about its having been initiated” and they have “endorsed the Foundation’s record of achievements in Venice”.

The foundation further states that “the complaints in the current lawsuit are essentially the same as those that were put forward, and rejected, in a 1992 lawsuit” in Paris. When Rumney and Hélion appealed that court’s decision, the foundation settled with them rather than “continue to bear the considerable trouble and cost of frivolous litigation, which the Foundation did not deem to be a proper use for a not-for-profit’s resources.”

Rumney and Hélion were offered a contribution towards their legal costs and, in turn, they explicitly acknowledged “the exclusive right of the Foundation to the exercise of its control over conservation of the Collection and exhibition of the works of art in the Palace”, the organisation says in its statement. The duo also agreed that the Foundation would “continue its efforts to present from time to time the greatest possible number of works of the Collection that it should judge, at its sole discretion, to be the optimum number for presentation of the Collection”.

The foundation accuses Rumney and Hélion of “repeatedly contradict[ing] their own position. They insist that no works other than Peggy Guggenheim’s be exhibited in the palazzo or the garden. Yet between 1999 and 2013, they were instrumental in organising 14 exhibitions of works entirely foreign to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection.”

“They object to works other than those donated by Peggy Guggenheim being kept and exhibited at the museum in Venice. Yet they themselves have donated multiple works to be kept and exhibited at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection.”

“They luridly mischaracterise the receptions held in the garden as a ‘desecration’ of Peggy Guggenheim’s grave. Yet these events carry forward Peggy Guggenheim’s own tradition of sociability in the garden. They are held with great consideration and respect for the quiet corner of the garden in which Peggy Guggenheim’s urn is interred. And Mr Rumney and Mr Hélion themselves have participated in garden events many times over the years,” the foundation says.

Update: During the hearing on Wednesday 21 May, lawyers for Peggy’s grandchildren and the foundation pleaded their cases in front of a full courtroom, as reported in Le Monde.

A key point of the debate was the how a private collection should be treated. Bernard Edelemen, a lawyer for the family argued that, since during her life Peggy refused to lend out individual works or disperse it, the entire collection should be treated as an “intellectual work” whose integrity should be protected. However the foundation’s lawyer, Pierre-Louis Dauzier, argued that a collection is a simple accumulation of disparate works, citing as examples the private holdings of Bernard Arnault and François Pinault. “To collect is not to create,” Dauzier said.

A judgment is due to be made on 2 July.

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