Artistic Differences

April 26, 2005 1 min read
This 1927 painting by Birger Sandzen, "A Mountain Symphony," was a gift to a Milwaukee school

The Milwaukee school district is in a legal battle with a Connecticut auction house over valuable paintings that a principal wanted to sell.

Principal Nancy H. Conner of Washington High School in Milwaukee signed a contract with Shannon’s Fine Art Auctioneers in Woodbridge, Conn., last September to sell two paintings without the school board’s approval, said Patrick B. McDonnell, the deputy city attorney who is working on the legal matter.

The mountain-landscape paintings by the Swedish artist Birger Sandzen, which were discovered in the school’s storage area, were a gift from the 1927 graduating class. The two paintings are worth nearly $250,000 each.

Before signing the contract, Ms. Conner spoke with the school council, an independent advisory board of parents, teachers, and community members for Washington High, about selling the paintings and received permission to sell them from auditors for the school district, said Clara Henley, the president of the school council.

But Mr. McDonnell said the principal violated school board policy. All gifts made to the Milwaukee schools fall under the district board’s authority, he said.

The auction house filed a lawsuit on March 30 in Connecticut Superior Court against the principal and the Milwaukee district, arguing that it has a right to sell the paintings.

The 105,000-student Milwaukee district filed a countersuit against the art auction house on April 8, seeking to keep the paintings.

Shannon’s has refused to return the artwork, but it has withdrawn the paintings from the April 28 auction. The auction house is now seeking $136,000 in damages from the district, including a $105,000 fee for removing the paintings from the scheduled auction, according to its lawsuit.

Ms. Henley is angry over losing the potential money for the school.

“That’s why I’m so mad about it, because it’s telling me the school board doesn’t care about the kids, because they’re cutting the budget,” she said.