If Your Sculpture Doesn’t End Up in a Museum, Pay Them to Take It

Jackson Pollock and Mary Lincoln Bonnell
Jackson Pollock and Mary Lincoln Bonnell, Graphic: Oliver Peterson

It’s an established fact that the work of a poet or painter generally is worth more after they die. Especially if they die young. Just ask the English poets Byron, Keats or Shelley, who all died by the age of 36, or, more locally, Jackson Pollock, who died in a car accident in Springs when he was 44.

The eastern end of Long Island is filled with struggling artists and writers who chug along, hoping against hope that this will not be their fate. Or that it will. What is to happen to the paintings or sculpture they create after they are gone? The very thought of them being taken to the dump or given away at a yard sale can frighten someone enough to think about walking in front of a truck in their early 30s. Usually, however, the self-preservation instinct reins this all in.

Well, you can always give away what you’ve done to your children and friends, whether they like it or not.

I can think of two cases involving people out here, however, where those who didn’t quite make it big have taken matters into their own hands.

Some people may recall a gift made to the town of East Hampton 10 or 15 years ago by the widow of a local sculptor, who asked only that a series of sculptures by the artist be displayed forever and ever on the property being donated. The sculptures would be there on display, and everybody is happy, except for other sculptors who did not have that happen to them.

The other happened just last week. The will of a wealthy 84-year-old woman, a sculptor of little note, who died in Manhattan in April, was read, and in it was found instructions as follows:

“The Trustee shall pay from the trust income and/or principal an amount up to TEN THOUSAND DOLLARS ($10,000) per work of Artistic Property given to a gallery, museum, school, and/or other cultural institution, on the condition that such institution agrees to display and exhibit such work of Artistic Property on a regular basis.” Although the word gallery appears in the final will, it was amended later to eliminate the word gallery from the list.

The artistic work consisted of 70 large sculptures she had made during her career and were, at her death last April, in storage at a facility in Long Island City.

This startling offer was featured in articles in New York magazine, the New York Daily News and the New York Post. The woman is on her way.

The woman is Mary Lincoln Bonnell. She was married to Joseph Clark Jr., the wealthy son of Pennsylvania Senator Joseph Clark. Ms. Bonnell lived on Fourth Avenue and 12th Street in Manhattan and was a visitor to the Hamptons. Her sculptures were exhibited in the Elaine Benson Gallery in Bridgehampton and, in the late 1950s, at the famous Signa Gallery in East Hampton, during the few years it was in business. She was exhibited at Guild Hall in East Hampton one year, but none of the work sold. Nor did any other of her sculptures sell, as near as anybody can tell.

The couple never had any children. And when Mr. Clark died in 2001, Ms. Bonnell was just another little old lady living in Manhattan. As she aged, she became more housebound. There was a woman, Joan Horsford, who had been her caretaker for years. She doted on her cat, Amy. She was a friendly lady that people liked. But she died in a fire in the bedroom of her apartment on April 17.

The race is on. What constitutes “frequent basis?” What exactly is a “cultural institution?” And who decides exactly what “up to $10,000” is to be paid? Well that decision is overseen by the trustee of her estate, Herbert Nass. Obviously the Metropolitan Museum of Art is worth $10,000. But maybe the Bupkis Museum of Whirligigs and Sculpture in Podunk, Indiana is worth $50. It’s up to him, I suppose.

“She wants the name Mary Lincoln Bonnell out there,” Herbert Nass, told the Post. “It keeps her alive—it’s her bid for immortality.”

Photographs of the work have appeared in the media. The sculptures are, frankly, quite beautiful and delicate. They are made of bronze and other materials, look almost like works of nature, and there’s a sort of soaring quality about them. I’d be out there selling them to museums in the area myself, but one of the first three already placed went to Guild Hall in East Hampton, according to the New York Post, so we’ve got our share. The other two went to NYU Law School ($2,000, if you ask me) and the Historic Hudson Valley Society (I’d give
50 cents.) There’s 67 more to be placed.

If there’s money left over after ten years have passed, it all goes to Ms. Bonnell’s cousins in Nebraska.

Remember the name. Mary Lincoln Bonnell.

Another item in the news this week has involved a Jackson Pollock painting, possibly worth $50 million or maybe more if experts can agree he painted it, or maybe $50,000 if there is little agreement and it is only “attributed” to Jackson Pollock. I use the word agreement because the person who supposedly painted it and the person who says the painter personally gave it to her as a gift—so “now you have a Jackson Pollock”—are dead. Agreeing one way or another is the best anybody can do. At the present time, this painting is in consignment at Phillips auction house in

The person who claimed to have received the freshly painted Pollock from its maker is Ruth Kligman, a young woman who, at age 26, was Jackson Pollock’s lover in his final year before he died in that car crash in 1956.

She was very public about her affair with Pollock after he died. There are photos of the two together. She was in the car crash with him. She later wrote a book about their love affair. She claims his wife, Lee Krasner, caught them having their affair. Kligman tried to get the painting—“Red, Black & Silver”—recognized as a Pollock, but the board that had been established by Krasner to authenticate her husband’s works rejected it.

According to last Monday’s New York Times, there is now a battle going on between Krasner’s estate and Kligman’s estate about whether this is really a Pollock.

But the news now is that a forensics expert hired by Kligman’s estate says he has found good reason to believe it was made at Pollock’s house in Springs. This man, Nicholas D.K. Petraco, a retired detective, has examined the painting, taken tiny samples of what has turned out to be a piece of the shoes Pollock died in, and has found, among other things, a white polar bear hair embedded in it. Is there a white polar bear at the Pollock-Krassner house? Their home is now a museum. And yes, there is. It is in the attic, but was used as a rug in the days the Pollocks (and Ms. Kligman, at the time) lived there.

Is it $50,000 or $50,000,000? We will soon see. Or not.

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