MICHELE NORRIS, host:
Now to an unusual corner of the art world. Martin Ramirez was a Mexican immigrant who spent more than 30 years in psychiatric hospitals in California. He drew and painted using pencils and crayons. And these days his pictures are worth a lot of money. We're talking six figures. Now his family is taking legal action to recover some of his artwork, as Jon Kalish reports.
JON KALISH: Martin Ramirez created remarkably vibrant pictures considering that he made his own paint by grinding up crayons and colored pencils and mixing them with his own spit in a little pot. James Durfee saw Ramirez work. Durfee is now 79-years-old. In 1948, he worked as a psychiatric nurse at DeWitt State Hospital when Ramirez arrived on his ward.
Mr. JAMES DURFEE (Former Psychiatric Nurse, DeWitt State Hospital): At that time, none of us saw the value of the paintings. Many of his paintings were ended in the garbage cans. And remember that this was a TB ward, tuberculosis, and he used a lot of sputum in his paintings. Most people did not want to touch them.
KALISH: But Tarmo Pasto didn't mind. The psychology professor at a nearby college collected hundreds of Ramirez's artworks between 1948 and 1963, the year the artist died. In 1961, Pasto sent 17 Ramirez pictures to a young graduate student in southern California who was studying the relatively new discipline of art therapy.
Ms. MAUREEN HAMMOND (Retired Teacher): When I opened that package, I was just really flabbergasted. And I thought, my God, this is really not the work of somebody who is schizophrenic like the other work I have, but genuinely simplistic and beautiful and linear and so non-psychotic, you know, for want of a better word.
KALISH: Maureen Hammond is retired now. She was planning to auction the 17 Ramirez artworks at Sotheby's this year. But the auction house called off the sale after Ramirez's grandchildren objected. Hammond's lawyer, Rick Richmond, questions why the family has waited so long to lay a claim when it's known about Ramirez's art for 60 years, and as Richmond put it, saved none of the paintings it had.
Mr. RICK RICHMOND (Attorney): They did nothing to preserve them. The law says if you wait too long, the burden's on you. The burden is not on the other person who's had the property all those years.
KALISH: But the family was desperately poor and had no way to visit Ramirez thousands of miles away from its home in Mexico. It wasn't until this year that two grandchildren who live in Southern California hired lawyers and formed an estate. One of the central questions in the legal battle is whether Martin Ramirez was mentally competent enough to know that he was giving his paintings away. Eric Lieberman is a lawyer for the Ramirez estate.
Mr. ERIC LIEBERMAN (Attorney): The superior court in northern California made a determination that Martin Ramirez should be involuntarily committed as insane. Upon such determination, a presumption arises that he was incompetent to engage in any such transactions. That finding and that diagnosis never changed.
KALISH: Tarmo Pasto is no longer around to be called as a witness. The psychologist who is credited with bringing Ramirez to the world's attention passed away in 1986. But one of the leading Ramirez scholars, Victor Espinosa, cites an academic paper Pasto presented in the 1970s that declared Ramirez was not mentally ill. Espinosa says California psychiatric hospitals during the Great Depression were not just for the mentally ill.
Mr. VICTOR ESPINOSA (Fine Art Scholar): We have to remember, in those days, we were talking about the Depression era in California. People were living in the streets and the mental institutions were really like homeless shelters.
KALISH: If mental institutions were one of the few places to house the homeless during the Great Depression, museums have been some of the few institutions to take care of artwork by those who were deemed mentally ill. Rebecca Hoffberger, founder and director of the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore which displays a lot of this work, says credit should be given to those who saved art that otherwise might have been largely ignored.
Ms. REBECCA HOFFBERGER (Founder and Director, American Visionary Art Museum, Baltimore): The reality is, for years some of the most remarkable artwork that was ever made by people who happened to have had mental illness was just thrown away or destroyed because the production of people with mental illness was so disregarded. So there has been already a grievous loss.
KALISH: There may be many more previously unknown works by Martin Ramirez in private hands. Several dozen recently discovered Ramirez paintings are currently on display at the American Folk Art Museum and the Ricco Maresca gallery in New York. Their owner settled with the Ramirez estate. And the estate's lawyers are hopeful that Maureen Hammond, whose 17 Ramirez works were to be auctioned by Sotheby's, will also settle. For NPR News, I'm Jon Kalish in New York.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.