School Faces Dilemma on Valuable Art A painting of an Afghan tribesman has hung for decades in an elementary school in North Attleboro, Mass. It turns out that picture is worth millions of dollars. Now the school system must decide whether it will display the painting in accordance with the wishes of its donor, or sell it.
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School Faces Dilemma on Valuable Art

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School Faces Dilemma on Valuable Art

School Faces Dilemma on Valuable Art

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It's the kind of thing you see every week on "Antiques Road Show." A long-overlooked painting turns out to be worth lots of money, and then comes the inevitable question: keep it or sell it?


That quandary is now facing the town of North Attleboro, Massachusetts. A large painting depicting white-robed Afghan tribesman had hung for decades in the auditorium of an elementary school there. A local resident did a little research and discovered that the seven-by-10-foot painting is the work of a highly respected Russian artist, a masterpiece potentially worth millions of dollars.

Now the school system must decide whether to sell the painting or keep it on display in accordance with the wishes of the original donor. Rick Smith is superintendent of schools in North Attleboro, Massachusetts. He joins us now. And Mr. Smith, I understand that you're in the camp that says sell the painting?

Mr. RICK SMITH (Superintendent of Schools, North Attleboro, Massachusetts): Yes.


Mr. SMITH: Well, I believe that if it is sold and the family is given the opportunity to make a purchase on behalf of the town using the town's funds, generated through the auction process, to purchase another significant piece of art, maybe worth $50,000, and if we are able then to establish a significant perpetual scholarship for our students who wish to study art in college in this family's name, I believe the legacy of the grandfather will be greatly enhanced, and he will receive the credit that he actually has always been due.

NORRIS: The grandfather, William Charles Thompson, the man who actually donated the painting many years ago.

Mr. SMITH: Exactly.

NORRIS: Perhaps you could describe it for us. What's it look like?

Mr. SMITH: Well, it portrays a number of Afghan people, some on horses, some seated in what is obviously a rocky mountain area. Every one of them seems to be wearing some sort of headgear that is typical of the time and culture, and it's quite colorful, you know, blue sky. And it's certainly a noteworthy painting, even to someone who knows nothing about art.

NORRIS: Now the painting was done by a Russian artist, Alexandre Iacovleff. Is there any indication at the time that the painting held some value?

Mr. SMITH: Well, when it was donated, Mr. Thompson told the school committee it was worth $3,500. I'm not expert in this area, so forgive me if I'm misspeaking here, but I've been advised that artists left Russian in great numbers in the 1910s, 1920s because of some limitations that were placed on them and their ability to work, and they went various places in the world. That's what this gentleman did. And now what's happened is, because the Russian economy has taken off, there are Russians who are trying to recapture their culture.

So they are bidding against each other, actually, to bring this artwork back to their country, and that's what's happened with this painter's paintings and the value of those paintings.

NORRIS: So if you were actually to sell this at auction, how much would this painting fetch?

Mr. SMITH: Well, I was advised by Sotheby's that they would expect it to sell for between $1 and 2 million.

NORRIS: It seems like that would be quite an endowment for the school. Why not hold onto it?

Mr. SMITH: Well, it's not our mission to collect and store art. You'd have to insure it, and no insurance company is going to do that if it's in a building in which it would never be secure.

NORRIS: So where is the painting right now, by the way?

Mr. SMITH: The painting is at Sotheby's in Manhattan.

NORRIS: So if not for that local resident who was intrigued by the painting, actually looked it up and discovered that it would be - it was of great value -continue hanging in the school with no problem.

Mr. SMITH: That's right.

NORRIS: But now that you've discovered that it's quite expensive, you can't hold onto it?

Mr. SMITH: Right. It's ironic.

NORRIS: The donor's grandson says the sale of this painting is a bad idea. He says that the schools are caught up in what he calls a gold rush mentality.

Mr. SMITH: I can understand his perspective. I also suggest that, quite frankly, it's been hanging in this relatively dark auditorium for 55 years, and I don't think his grandfather has gotten the credit that they deserve. It's just too expensive for us to keep, and the moral high ground in the story suggests that if it's going to be displayed in a museum, which I think is where it must end up, that it should be in Russia, and I suspect that this artist would want it to go back to Russia.

NORRIS: Mr. Smith, it was good to talk to you. Thanks so much.

Mr. SMITH: Thank you very much.

NORRIS: Rick Smith is the superintendent of schools in North Attleboro, Massachusetts.

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