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Dispute Over Connecticut School's Mural Spurs New Interest in Depression-Era Art

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After extensive restoration, the untitled mural by James Daugherty is valued at more than $1 million.

A Depression-era mural that was taken down and discarded or lost by a Connecticut high school in 1970 has become the object of a hard-fought legal battle now that it has been restored and appraised at more than $1 million.

Publicity about the struggle over ownership of the work may spur school officials around the country to look more closely for newly valuable art pieces that have been lost or long neglected in their buildings, say participants in the case.

The disputed mural--a historical collage of heroic leaders and muscular proletarians in the Expressionist style--was painted by James Daugherty and installed on the walls of Stamford High School in 1934. The work was commissioned by the federal Works Progress Administration, which sponsored many such efforts in government buildings in order to help artists survive the Depression.

The work's subsequent history, however, is the subject of considerable debate. The only matters that are clear are that it was removed during a renovation project at the school, and currently is in the possession of Hiram A. Hoelzer, a New York art restorer.

Mr. Hoelzer argues that the school had thrown the work away when it was found by a student and eventually wound up in his care. The school's abandonment of the mural--together with the extensive restoration work he has carried out on it--makes him the legal owner, he claims.

"He's been in possession of it for 18 years and nobody has claimed it," says his attorney, Stephen A. Wise of New Canaan, Conn.

In 1987, the mural was appraised at $1.25 million by Sotheby's Inc., the international art-auction house.

Officials of the city of Stamford, who are pushing to regain the mural, argue that it had merely been laid aside when it was removed by the student. Thus, they contend, the city retains title to the work, and should have it back.

The city is willing, however, to pay a "reasonable" fee to Mr. Hoelzer for his restoration services, according to Ira M. Lowe, a Washington lawyer who is representing Stamford in the case.

The fight over the piece comes at a time of growing interest in finding and preserving the wpa murals, say experts in the field.

The federal General Services Administration has located hun8dreds of such works that are still extant, and there may be many more than have yet to be identified.

Records show at least 184 wpa works in public-school buildings, according to Charlene Heeter, a gsa fine-arts specialist. But the agency does not know whether any of those works may have been lost or removed since they were included in government records.

Like the Stamford mural, such works may prove to be far more financially valuable than those responsible for caring for them may realize. ''People are becoming more aware of them," said Ms. Heeter. "There's a big market for New Deal art."

Many of the murals were painted directly on walls--rather than on canvas, as was the case in Stamford--and so are essentially non-transferable. Moreover, in many cases schools and other institutions would not want to sell a part of their history.

But more attention should be paid to finding and preserving these surviving examples of a vibrant era of American art, experts say. "Hopefully, this case will encourage discovery of murals all around the country," Mr. Lowe observed.--hhd

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