The US government is quietly confiscating works of art produced by struggling artists who were enrolled in President Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal” economic recovery programme to help the nation out of the Great Depression. The Art Newspaper has learned that one such seizure took place in Pennsylvania this summer. A collector and part-time dealer, Robert Quilter, decided to sell House with White Fence, 1935, by R.A.D. Miller.
The painting is just one of the thousands of works of art created between 1933 and 1942 under four government programmes. Artists were paid a weekly salary of $23 to $35, but they had to give their works to the government for public places such as libraries, offices and schools. The programmes ended in 1942.
Now, 71 years later, owners risk losing their art—without any compensation. The government says it is not targeting art held privately, but it may be seized if it is put up for sale.
In the latest case, Mr Quilter consigned the work to the Alderfer Auction Company in Pennsylvania. The auction house gave it a $10,000 to $15,000 pre-sale estimate.
A few days before the sale, Mr Quilter received a call from the auction house, saying the work could not be sold as it was US government property, proved by a label on the back. An agent from the Office of the Inspector General took the painting which was then given to the Michener Art Museum, Doylestown, Pennsylvania. Mr Quilter, who had bought the painting 12 years earlier, received no compensation.
The numbers of works that could be affected are substantial. One programme alone accounted for “over 108,000 easel paintings, 11,300 fine prints, 2,500 murals and 18,000 sculpture works”, according to the government’s General Services Administration (GSA). Thousands of works were stored in warehouses, but were abandoned when the New Deal programmes ceased. After World War II, the warehouse contents were sold. The works have since been traded openly because no one knew it was illegal to do so.
The government claims its rights under the “Legal Title to Art Work Produced Under the 1930s and 1940s New Deal Administration” act. The GSA says all art dealers and collectors should have a copy of the free 35-page declaration.
o For more information: www.gsa.gov