One of the most hotly debated topics of last year’s Town Meeting in Lincoln will be revisited Saturday, when the Board of Selectmen is expected to recommend selling three paintings that used to hang in the town’s Bemis Hall.
Some officials say the town would get more out of selling the artwork, formerly owned by renowned collector Julian deCordova, and using the proceeds to support local cultural activities.
But the plan did not go over well last year, and is expected to produce a spirited debate once again, said Sara Mattes, chairwoman of the Board of Selectmen.
“There were a lot of questions we hadn’t answered, so we are bringing it back this year,’’ Mattes said. “There is a group of people who feel passionately that we should keep this fine art, and clean it up and display it. The question is whether the town should own such objects, and, if so, why.’’
Town Meeting starts at 9:30 a.m. Saturday in Brooks Auditorium on the Lincoln School campus.
The three paintings were on display in Bemis Hall, which is now used by the Council on Aging, from 1945 to 2010. According to Mattes, the two smaller works, by Paul Dougherty, each approximately 36 inches by 48 inches, are still in their original hand-carved Arts and Crafts style frames. Titled “Tranquil Tide’’ and “Marine,’’ they were placed high on the walls flanking the stage at Bemis Hall.
The third, “Gateway to Nevada, Truckee,’’ was painted in 1939 by Wilhelm F. Ritschel, she said. It is 40 inches by 60 inches, and in its original hand-carved frame. It was displayed between the two entrance doors to Bemis Hall at the top of the double stairs, Mattes said.
At Town Meeting last spring, Lincoln resident Douglas Stinson provided the town with an appraisal of $25,000 for “Tranquil Tide,’’ $20,000 for “Marine,’’ and $125,000 for “Gateway to Nevada, Truckee.’’
Stinson, who works at his family’s business in Reading, Carl W. Stinson Auctioneers and Appraisers, opposes the sale of the artwork, saying he thinks they are an important part of the town’s history. Stinson said deCordova, who with his wife amassed a substantial art collection during their travels, left his entire estate to the town, and stipulated that it become a public museum.
“These are the last pieces of his collection that the town has,’’ Stinson said. “They are the last vestiges of what Julian deCordova gave to the town.’’
Stinson said when the issue came up last year, he and others offered to donate money to help preserve the paintings, but town officials never followed up.
According to Mattes, deCordova bequeathed his property in Lincoln and its contents to the town in 1930. After deCordova’s death in 1945, Lincoln’s Advisory Committee determined that it would be difficult for the town to manage a museum and grounds, so it recommended that the conditions of the will and trusts be broken, the vast majority of the estate’s contents sold, and a new governance structure created to manage the philanthropist’s Sandy Pond Road property, which became the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum.
The three paintings were among those in the inventory, but Mattes said it’s unclear how they ended up in Bemis Hall. In 2010, the Lincoln Historical Society recommended that they be sold, since they were not done by local artists, and do not depict local scenes.
“They are really not any part of Lincoln’s history,’’ said Beth Ries, copresident of the Lincoln Historical Society. “They hung in a home in Lincoln, but that doesn’t really qualify.’’
Ries also said the society wonders where the paintings could be displayed if Lincoln keeps them.
“If they are as valuable as believed, we don’t believe there is a good place in town where they could be secure,’’ Ries said. The paintings are being stored by the deCordova Museum.
The proposal to sell came up at last year’s Town Meeting but was shot down by residents. Mattes said several questions were raised about their history and value, so she conducted more research and officials are reviving the discussion.
Mattes said the Board of Selectmen voted Tuesday night to recommend selling the paintings, and use the proceeds to enrich the community’s cultural life. She said the board recommends placing the proceeds in the Julian deCordova Paintings Trust, to be administered by the Bemis trustees, who are elected officers of the town. The money would be invested, with the principal protected and any income available to support local cultural activities and to celebrate deCordova’s legacy, Mattes said.
Mattes said she would rather see the money go toward something that will more directly benefit Lincoln’s residents.
“It’s important to have art in town. I don’t think this is the art to have,’’ Mattes said. “For that money to sit on a wall, that’s not where I would make the choice.’’
But Melinda Abraham said she thinks the town owes it to deCordova to respect the works, and display them for all residents to enjoy.
“For me, these paintings represent a time and an era that’s worth preserving,’’ said Abraham, who is cochairwoman of the town’s Cultural Council but was speaking as a private citizen.
“Art adds to the cultural richness of the town,’’ she said, “and having something that reflects someone who was a prominent citizen is a wonderful way to recognize that individual.’’
Jennifer Fenn Lefferts can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.