U.S.A.

Martha and the culture vultures

Rita Christopher April 23 1979
U.S.A.

Martha and the culture vultures

Rita Christopher April 23 1979

Martha and the culture vultures

Those rebellious American colonies are squabbling again and George Washington, naturally, is at the centre of the fray. Last week, Boston squared off against Washington, D.C., over ownership of two portraits of George and Martha by the 18th-century painter Gilbert Stuart. When the news that Boston’s staid private library, the Athenaeum, intended to sell the portraits for $5 million to Washington's Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, Boston Mayor Kevin White likened the transaction to “the Louvre trying to sell the Mona Lisa to the Arabs.’’

The Smithsonian offered to send the pictures back to Boston once every five years for the next 50 years but White, unappeased, compared Washington’s acquisitory instincts to the legendary greed of Hitler’s sidekick Hermann Goering.

Enter Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy with a misty-eyed recollection: “One of my earliest memories is of sitting on my grandfather’s shoulders looking straight into the eyes of President Washington,” he noted, adding a shrewd budgetary jab to his tug on the heartstrings: “That the Smithsonian has this sort of money burning a hole in its pocket should certainly be of interest to the congressional appropriations committees.”

Washington doesn’t take challenges like that lying down. Countered Marvin Sadik, director of the National Portrait Gallery: “It is ineluctably right that these precious icons should at long last reside in the pantheon

[set up] to honor the nation’s immortals.” As the two cities bickered, The New York Times took the chance to put in a bid of its own. What about a compromise, it suggested. Why not let George and Martha rest halfway—in Manhattan’s Metropolitan Museum of Art? Mayor White, however, was in no mood to bargain, especially after suggestions from the capital that Boston’s other spectacular example of Americana, the U.S.S. Constitution, would be better moored on the Potomac. Announcing a public drive to raise funds for the portraits to match the Smithsonian’s offer, he asked a Massachusetts court to block the sale. That may have clinched matters. At week’s end the Smithsonian and Athenaeum jointly announced a nine-month suspension of the sale Rita Christopher