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Heirs of Peggy Guggenheim sue New York foundation

They say the legendary collectors’ bequest has been "violated" and her grave in Venice "desecrated"

Peggy Guggenheim at her home in the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, Venice, Italy, 1950. Photo: David Seymour

Seven French descendants of Peggy Guggenheim are suing the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation for violating the conditions of the bequest of the legendary American collector, who left her Venetian palace and art collection to the New York organisation.

They are calling for the revocation of Peggy Guggenheim’s donation to the foundation because of the organisation’s “failure to comply with the conditions under which it was granted,” according to court papers seen by The Art Newspaper.

After Peggy Guggenheim’s death in 1979, her home on the Grand Canal, the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, and the collection of Cubist, abstract and Surrealist art, which it housed, were given to the foundation so that it could be run as a museum. She stipulated that the collection should remain intact and on display, the plaintiffs argue, and suggested that any works that were acquired subsequently or borrowed temporarily should be shown in an adjacent palace.

But in 2012, the Peggy Guggenheim Collection accepted the gift of 83 post-war and contemporary works bequeathed by the collectors Rudolph and Hannelore Schulhof, which included pieces by Alexander Calder, Ellsworth Kelly, Agnes Martin, Franz Kline, Cy Twombly, Anselm Kiefer and Andy Warhol, among many others.

Works collected by Peggy Guggenheim were moved from the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni and placed in storage to make way for a four-month exhibition of the Schulhof bequest that ran from May to September in 2013. The collectors have also been honoured with inscriptions of their names alongside Peggy Guggenheim’s at both entrances of the museum.

“The foundation is taking away the soul of the collection,” said Sindbad Rumney, the great grandson of Peggy Guggenheim who is one of the plaintiffs in the case, in a phone interview with The Art Newspaper. “What’s very shocking about this is that the Schulhof collection is intended to stay there permanently,” he added, pointing out that Michael P. Schulhof, the son of the late collectors, has been a trustee of the Guggenheim Foundation since 2009. “They are totally disrespecting my great grandmother’s legacy… it’s appalling; it’s a big disappointment. Basically… what we’ve [discovered] is that if you have the right amount of money and you have a collection, you can show it at the Peggy Guggenheim in Venice.”

Rumney said that the display of the Schulhof bequest was just the latest example of how the Guggenheim Foundation has “persistently disregarded” Peggy Guggenheim’s intentions, noting that the family’s displeasure resulted in a previous lawsuit in France in the 1990s. That case was dismissed and before the family’s appeal could be heard the Foundation reached a settlement with them in 1996 under the terms of which the organisation agreed to consult the Guggenheim descendants in France for “all major decisions”, Rumney said, adding that “this has never been done”.

The French plaintiffs are also accusing the Guggenheim Foundation of desecrating Peggy Guggenheim’s burial site. Her ashes were laid to rest in the palace gardens alongside those of her beloved dogs but instead of leaving the site as Peggy intended, the foundation has betrayed her original wishes by displaying works donated by Patsy and Raymond Nasher nearby, the family argues.

“It is no longer a garden for meditation or a ‘sacred’ place dedicated to Peggy Guggenheim; it is a profane place glorifying collectors… it has become [the Nasher’s] garden… even more so since the works of their collection have invaded the premises significantly distorting them,” the court papers state. “Worst of all is the fact that this burial place has become a commercial area for money-making. It is rented throughout the year for private cocktail parties and solicitations of donations from ‘philanthropists’ for enrichment of the foundation… To use Peggy Guggenheim’s grave for the purpose of attracting… donations is to turn it into a business… akin to the commercialisation of plasticised bodies, which is a violation of the deceased’s dignity and fundamental rights.”

The plaintiffs are calling for “the Peggy Guggenheim collection in the palace… and in its garden be completely restored to a proper state”; for the “mention of other collectors to be removed from museum and gardens” and for the Nasher works to be removed from the garden.

A hearing for the case is scheduled to take place on 21 May in Paris. The Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice declined to comment. Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation in New York said the heirs' claims "have no merit", in a statement. "In particular, the claimants are simply wrong to state that there were any conditions associated with the gift of the collection to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation. As a French court held in a decision in 1994, there were no such conditions," the foundation says.

It adds: "The Foundation has faithfully and consistently honored the purpose of Peggy Guggenheim's gift, which was to expand and spread the appreciation of the modern art she loved. Under the management of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, the Peggy Guggenheim Collection has grown to become the finest museum of American 20th century art in Italy and is among the most visited. Ms Guggenheim herself is rightly recognised as one of the great collectors and art personalities of the 20th century.

"The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation was extremely disappointed to learn of this lawsuit, which as reported in the media rehashes claims that were rejected by a French court nearly 20 years ago in a decision that entirely vindicated the Foundation. The Foundation is proud of its management of the Collection. It intends to defend itself vigorously in this meritless proceeding and will address the specific claims in court."

This article has been corrected: Rudolph and Hannelore Schulhof were US-based collectors, not German as we originally reported. Rudolph was Czech by birth and Hannelore was born in Berlin

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Comments

18 Mar 14
19:23 CET

D. CLANCY, CHICAGO

It is absolutely my very favorite small museum because of Peggy Guggenheim's collection and her beautiful home in which it resides. My Guggenheim bag is nearly worn through from constant use as a reminder of a memorable visit there with my husband and good friends.

18 Mar 14
17:37 CET

SUSAN HALPER, NYC

I believe Rudolf Schulhof was Czech and Hannelore his wife was born in Berlin . They were very supportive of the Guggenheim for many many years.

18 Mar 14
17:41 CET

FRANCOISE GUICHON, PARIS

Not only a collector PG had been an actor of the art scene before the war II. It's precious for every visitor to discover and to live this moment trough the eye of such a lover of art and not only to visit only a great collection of "american art in europe". This experience is unique and have to stay unique.

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