Published: March 4, 2008
Anyone who has visited the American Folk Art Museum (AFAM) on West 53rd Street has no doubt marveled at the numerous pieces of folk art displayed that bear wall text identifying an item as either a gift or promised gift of Ralph Esmerian. In 2001, the folk art collector, jewelry dealer and AFAM trustee emeritus donated his 432-piece collection to the museum, not only launching the institution’s inaugural exhibition in its new home, but virtually forming the cornerstone of its collection.
Included were examples of classic American folk art, such as weathervanes, painted chests, primitive paintings, a carousel figure, embroidered bed coverings, fraktur and other items.
An iconic part of that buttressing collection was a painting by American folk artist Edward Hicks (1780‱849), “The Peaceable Kingdom,” one of the Bucks County, Penn., artist’s interpretations of the scene described in the Bible’s Book of Isaiah in which wild and domestic animals gather together in harmony. The painting was prominently featured in the book American Radiance: The Ralph Esmerian Gift to the American Folk Art Museum (Abrams, 2001).
That pillar, however, now appears to have been removed.
According to media reports, lawyers representing Merrill Lynch filed a complaint with the New York Supreme Court in January asserting that Esmerian had pledged some items from his collection as collateral to both Merrill Lynch and to Christie’s. In 2005, Esmerian acquired Fred Leighton’s estate jewelry business, financed in large part by a $185 million loan from Merrill Lynch. The loan was reportedly secured with precious stones and jewelry, and also some of the folk art treasures he had promised to the museum.
“The Peaceable Kingdom” appears to be among them, as reports have surfaced indicating that the painting is either in the process of being or has been sold by Sotheby’s in a private transaction. Sotheby’s has been tight-lipped regarding the sale. Nancy Druckman, Sotheby’s specialist for American folk art, would not comment on the matter. A spokesperson for Sotheby’s stated that the firm could not provide any further information as to the disposition of the Hicks painting.
Susan Flamm, public relations director at the American Folk Art Museum, confirmed that the Hicks has been removed from the museum. “This work was a promised gift to the museum,” she said with an apparent heavy heart, although, she added, “Ralph Esmerian is within his rights to offer the work for sale.”
“We are sad to lose this iconic work,” said Maria Ann Conelli, the museum’s director. “But it should not be forgotten that Ralph Esmerian has been a devoted supporter and contributor to the museum.”
As for what other promised gifts in the museum’s collection might be involved, Flamm said that eight of the ten objects identified in a recent news article as being on a list of material that Esmerian pledged as collateral “are items that were deeded to the museum.”