Five years after the fact, money from an auction of art objects from the Beaufort History Museum has been turned over to the city, but Mayor Billy Keyserling says there's a problem: The art belonged to the city and should never have been sold by the Beaufort Historic Foundation.
"It's wrong that it was sold without the owner being aware of it, and there's a moral issue if an individual gave a piece of art and that person wasn't notified as well," he said.
City officials learned of the sale more than a year ago when foundation representatives asked for a meeting to discuss what to do with the money.
"I was very pleased and grateful they found this quote, mistake, unquote," Keyserling said. "... I think it was a mistake. It wasn't a crime; it was a misstep."
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In December, the city received a check for $42,000 from the foundation, which managed the collection of art and historic artifacts from Beaufort and elsewhere from 2001 to 2008. Only part of the collection -- mostly paintings, sketches, engravings and a statue -- was sold, according to a receipt from the auction.
"Why it took as long as it did, I don't know," former foundation president Pete Palmer said. "There was no cutesy play. (The money) was always isolated, and it was clearly marked in our accounts as proceeds of the sale of artifacts that were not Beaufort-related and were not property of the historic foundation."
Palmer said some foundation board members had hoped the city would let the foundation keep the money for historic preservation projects. That possibility was discussed during the meeting, but Keyserling and city manager Scott Dadson opposed it, he said.
Maxine Lutz, now executive director of the foundation, was an assistant when the art items were sold. She said the city had authorized the foundation to manage the collection as it saw fit.
The museum collection included some odd items donated by residents from their home collections and travels. Many items had no direct connection to the area beyond the fact that Beaufort residents once owned them. The collection included, for example, a shrunken head, stuffed wild animals and pieces of marble said to be from the Colosseum in Rome.
"It was really the accumulation of Beaufort's travels," Lutz said. "It was Beaufort's attic."
Some of the items, though, weren't mere knick-knacks. Several paintings fetched thousands of dollars each when they were auctioned.
On May 15, 2008, Elizabeth Garrett Ryan, then-director of the museum, recommended to the foundation's Museums Committee that items that "fall out of the scope of the foundation's collection" be sold, according to foundation records. The sale was approved by the foundation's then-executive director, Evan Thompson, and committee chairwoman Sally Mitchell, the records show.
The foundation arranged for Brunk Auctions of Asheville, N.C., to sell 68 pieces of art. Of those, 61 were part of the museum collection owned by the city. The rest was from a collection owned by the foundation, according to handwritten notes on a statement from Brunk Auctions.
The work from both collections sold for a combined $70,625.
After the auctioneer's 10 percent commission, the items from the city's museum collection brought in $42,097.50, and the foundation's items brought in $21,465, according to the receipt from the auction company.
The items from the museum collection that sold for the most included a Eugene Savage painting titled "Butterfly" that sold for $14,000, a William Halsey painting titled "Afterglow, Charleston" that sold for $6,400, and a Carl Raymond Blair painting titled "Perennial Legend III" that sold for $5,500.
Keyserling said he did not see the list of what was auctioned, so he does not know about the items' connections to Beaufort. But, he added, "(the items) have a Beaufort connection in that someone from Beaufort gave them. But what does it matter where it comes from? It belonged to the city."
The money is in a city bank account earmarked for museum use, but no decisions have been made on how or when it will be spent.
Keyserling said he expects the most recent group of residents attempting to maintain a Beaufort museum to ask for the money. For more than two years, the nonprofit Beaufort History Museum has cared for the city's collection.
The museum has been opened and closed several times over the past two decades -- with the city, the foundation and now the museum group attempting to make it a long-term success.
Museum items have been displayed on the first floor of City Hall at 1911 Boundary St. for more than a year. Museum board president Katherine Lang said she only learned about the auction and the money a year ago.
She said the board does not want to rush into requesting the money, but she would like to see it go toward the ultimate goal of moving the museum back into The Arsenal. Any plan for the money, however, would need city approval, she said.
The city will hold onto the money from the auction until the museum board asks for it and proves it can operate a museum that will be self-sustaining and successful, Keyserling said.
"We've had too many false starts with the museum to put the city's money into it until they can prove they can survive and move forward," he said.
Follow reporter Erin Moody at twitter.com/IPBG_Erin.