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Gilbert Stuart
Gilbert Stuart’s Constable-Hamilton Portrait of George Washington, 1797, and Asher B. Durand’s Kindred Spirits, 1849, both works sold by the New York Public Library to Alice Walton


June 21, 2011

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The African dictator Idi Amin may have killed as many as 500,000 of his countrymen before being deposed, after which he lived out his life unmolested in Libya and Saudi Arabia.

This case comes to mind with the retirement of Paul LeClerc after 17 years as president of the New York Public Library. Though he is but a servant of the powerful interests on the NYPL board, LeClerc nonetheless distinguished himself with several missteps of the first order. Even as he departs, the library faces a $40 million budget shortfall, and the closure of ten branch libraries.

Emblematic of LeClerc’s sorry regime was the sale of “naming rights” to New York’s crown jewel, the 42nd Street Central Library, to financier Stephen Schwartzman -- a vulgarian who compared Obama to Hitler -- for a mere $100 million. Also credited to LeClerc’s account is the closing of the beloved Donnell Library Center across the street from the Museum of Modern Art, part of a harebrained scheme to build a condo tower on the site. The library has now been shut for almost three years.

But most telling for art lovers was LeClerc’s sale of irreplaceable New York State cultural patrimony to Alice Walton, the Wal-Mart heiress whose museological efforts hardly seem designed to whitewash her family’s baleful economic record. Among the priceless library art treasures that LeClerc sold to the Wal-Mart museum -- secretly and without any public review -- is a classic Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington from 1797 for $8.1 million and Asher B. Durand’s 1849 Kindred Spirits, a masterpiece of U.S. landscape painting that depicts painter Thomas Cole and poet William Cullen Bryant in a dramatic Catskill Mountain setting, for an incredible $35 million. As if to underline the dishonesty of the transaction, the NYPL trustees promptly gave LeClerc a raise in salary to over $800,000 per year.

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