Published: July 27, 2021
PLAINFIELD, N.J. – In 1919, art collector and philanthropist J. Ackerman Coles gifted two Albert Bierstadt paintings to the city of Plainfield in memory of his father, Dr Abraham Coles. The city has been longing to sell the two works collectively worth $20 million, though an appeals court ruled July 20 in favor of a previous ruling, which deemed the sale unlawful.
“The Landing of Columbus” and “Autumn in the Sierras” are monumental, each 8 by 12 feet. They were held in a charitable trust by the city and displayed in local buildings, including the library and city hall.
The city wanted to sell them to fund a financial literacy program, a scholarship fund, and a recreational educational facility. The city argued that “The Landing of Columbus” depicted “racist implications” and its display would cause irreparable harm to people of color in its community.
The court wrote, “We are not convinced by the city’s argument that current social perceptions of Columbus render the continued ownership of the paintings impracticable. The city is free to display the painting in any location it chooses. Even if the city decides not to display the painting, it can be donated to a museum where it can be appreciated and valued for its artistic value – consistent with the original intent behind the donation.”
The city is required by New Jersey state law to ask the court’s permission to sell the paintings.
The court continued, “if Coles intended to support education in the city, as the city asserts, he would likely have made a monetary donation or bequest. It is highly unlikely that Coles would be amendable to the sale of the paintings treasured by him and donated to the city in the memory of his father.”
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