George Lindemann Journal by George Lindemann "Fight Over Guggenheim’s Legacy Roils Her Palazzo" @nytimes by DOREEN CARVAJAL

George Lindemann Journal by George Lindemann "Fight Over Guggenheim’s Legacy Roils Her Palazzo" @nytimes by DOREEN CARVAJAL

The names of two New York donors next to that of Peggy Guggenheim outside her museum palazzo in Venice. Credit Laia Abril for The New York Times


VENICE — The battle now raging over the Peggy Guggenheim Collection started with just a few words written in brass letters above the sculpted lions that guard the 18th-century palazzo turned art museum here.

On a wall facing the Grand Canal, the names of two Long Island art donors appeared last summer in letters nearly as large as those naming Guggenheim, who bequeathed her home, the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, and vast art collection to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation in New York before her death at 81 in 1979. It was a step too far for some of her relatives.

“I will sue. I will sue. I will sue,” Sandro Rumney, her grandson and a former art dealer, vowed when he confronted the museum’s director during festivities for the Venice Biennale last summer, family members say.

And so they have. Seven descendants who live in France are pressing a lawsuit in a Paris court, with a hearing scheduled for May 21. They charge that the foundation ignored Peggy Guggenheim’s last wish for the collection, which consists mainly of Cubist, Surrealist and abstract postwar art: that it be displayed in the palazzo in its entirety and without additions.

Peggy Guggenheim in her Venice palazzo in 1974 with one of her cherished pets. Credit Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone, via Getty Images

They say the museum has removed nearly half the works and added pieces donated by Rudolph B. and Hannelore B. Schulhof, the parents of Michael P. Schulhof, now a foundation trustee. The relatives are seeking to revoke Guggenheim’s donation if the collection is not restored to its initial state, a requirement that they say was stipulated by the heiress in a 1969 letter. They are demanding that the posted names of the later donors be removed, and that their artworks be taken out of the palazzo and garden.

The family also contends that rentals of the museum garden to well-heeled donors desecrate Guggenheim’s grave. Her remains are interred there in a wall alongside a tribute to “my beloved babies,” as she called them, 14 dogs with names like Cappuccino and Sir Herbert.

The foundation counters that its actions are faithful to Guggenheim’s memory, and that she attached no conditions to the donation. But the family says the foundation is violating her principles by pursuing a New York-centric corporate strategy, including aggressive merchandising of the collection. The museum boasts a new mascot, a bright yellow vinyl “Cappuccino” named for one of Guggenheim’s Lhasa apsos that is being sold in a limited edition for 140 euros ($195) each.

“They are absolutely running Peggy’s collection as a corporate enterprise,” said Sindbad Rumney, 27, a great-grandson and filmmaker who sniffs at the mascot, saying it is more appropriate for Disneyland. “In her lifetime, she would open her house for free to make it accessible,” he said in a phone interview. “She was not a merchant. She was an art lover, a patron. She did not want to be involved in commercial things.”

Peggy Guggenheim lived at the palazzo for the last three decades of her life and was one of the last people in Venice to maintain a private gondolier. The child of Benjamin Guggenheim, who died in 1912 in the sinking of the Titanic, she inherited her fortune in 1919, when she turned 21. After buying the palazzo in 1949, she amassed a 326-piece collection that included paintings and sculptures by modern European and American masters including Picasso, Kandinsky, Miró and Calder.

Santiago Rumney Credit Dmitry Kostyukov                    

She began opening her private collection to the public on a seasonal basis in 1951. After her death, the Guggenheim Foundation opened it year round and began expanding the museum by buying up neighboring buildings. The annual number of visitors has since increased to almost 400,000 from 35,000, according to the foundation.

The New York-based foundation, which oversees the Peggy Guggenheim collection, was founded by her uncle Solomon in 1937. The institution owns and controls the Venice museum and exhibitions, which the family acknowledges; what is in dispute is whether managers have respected her wishes as described in the letter.

“The foundation’s efforts have only honored, preserved and enhanced the memory and reputation of Peggy Guggenheim, “ said Betsy Ennis, a spokeswoman for the foundation in New York, noting that none of the works that she collected have been sold, and that they have been carefully conserved. She added that while the family objects to the nature of the garden parties, family members have attended some of them in the past.

But the family’s criticism of the Guggenheim Foundation’s corporate style and ambitions tends to resonate in Europe, where the Guggenheim proposes to create a new €130 million ($180 million) branch in Helsinki and opened a satellite in Bilbao, Spain, in 1997. Another branch is under construction in Abu Dhabi.

The lawsuit filed by the family seeks more financial information about the Venice collection, saying that the foundation has not issued an annual report about it since 2011 and does not disclose information about its revenues. On Monday, the foundation filed a response of nearly 100 pages to the suit in the Paris court, emphasizing that in a 1976 gift deed, no conditions were attached to Peggy Guggenheim’s donation.

Photos of Peggy Guggenheim, Mr. Rumney's great-grandmother. Credit Dmitry Kostyukov

But it also submitted a 1974 agreement spelling out her vision for the collection, including conditions outlined in the 1969 letter to her cousin Harry Guggenheim, then the president of the New York foundation. In the letter, she asked that “the collection be kept as a whole in the palazzo.” She was so detailed that she also directed that her earrings should be kept on display. The foundation argues, though, that the accord was not legally executed by lawyers.

It is not the first legal skirmish between the foundation and Peggy Guggenheim’s descendants. In 1992, they sued in a French court over museum displays in Venice that they said clashed with the collector’s vision. The two sides negotiated a settlement that led to the creation of a family committee to keep the descendants informed about museum activities.

Eleanor Goldhar, a spokeswoman for the Guggenheim Foundation, said the committee was “purely symbolic” and did not hold formal meetings, although descendants “received regular communications and updates from the director of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection.” Relatives contend that communications broke down, and that when some of the grandsons began suffering from ill health, they were ignored.

Santiago Rumney, 22, a son of Sandro who worked as an intern at the Venice museum, suggested that the latest clash began with a series of slights. After relatives were startled by the waterside sign bearing the Schulhofs’ names, he said, he was initially denied entry to an evening gathering in the house. Members of the Schulhof family attended that party to celebrate the donation, but the two sides did not mix, he added.

Hannelore Schulhof died in 2012, and her husband, Rudolph, died in 1999. Michael P. Schulhof, their son, who is now a member of the advisory board of the Peggy Guggenheim Foundation as well as a trustee of the New York-based foundation, declined to comment on the dispute.

The advisory body includes no Guggenheim descendants, something that Santiago Rumney said he wanted to change. “We want to recreate the advisory board with people who care about art, so it is not just for businessmen,“ he said.

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