PLAINFIELD, NJ — An Order to Show Cause was filed by the City of Plainfield in early August to sell two Albert Bierstadt paintings that were gifted by Dr. Jonathan Ackerman Coles to the city in 1919. The hearing, moved from August 28 and then to September 11, was heard by Union County Superior Court Judge Robert J. Mega on Tuesday. The judge rendered his decision, denying the order. Proceeds from the sale of the paintings that are held in a trust were to benefit the Plainfield Promise educational initiative.
The City of Plainfield was represented by Corporation Counsel David Minchello. In his opening statement, he said, "Today has the opportunity to be a great day for the City of Plainfield."
Noting legal basis for modification of the trust, Minchello said the charitable purpose must be impractical or impossible to achieve. He said the gifts given over a century ago — The Landing of Columbus and Autumn in the Sierras — were for the benefit of the Plainfield public. But he stated the paintings today do not have the same benefit and enjoyment due to the controversial subject.
Deputy Attorney General Jay Ganzman said his office submitted a letter stating there is no opposition to the modification of the trust — no opposition to the City of Plainfield selling the paintings, and placing the proceeds from the sale in trust for the benefit of the City of Plainfield. His office, however, took no position on the use of the proceeds from the sale, adding there is some question as to what the donor would have wanted in this matter if he were alive today.
Judge Mega provided a timeline of facts, starting with the gifting of the paintings in 1919. He read paperwork from the Scotch Plains Baptist Church in opposition to the sale, detailed beneficiaries of the will, including 11 charities around the world, and cited a 1923 case, Jonathan Ackerman Coles vs. the City of Newark. And he referenced a 1986 memo written by Jacqueline Drakeford, Plainfield City Solicitor, to Jerome Harris, Jr, City Administrator, giving her opinion:
However, a reasonable estimate of Dr. Cole's intent in donating the Bierstadt paintings can be gleaned from his letter to the City. His evident interest was in the hanging of the Bierstadt paintings in the City, and there is no indication that Dr. Coles had any intention other than to share a cherished and valuable work of art with the people of Plainfield in recognition of his father's labors in the City. Dr. Cole's interest in the life and adventures of Columbus are also very much evident in his flowery and poetic tribute to Columbus. Thus, a court may well find that the generalized charitable intent necessary to apply the doctrine of Cy Pres is lacking.
In the end, Judge Mega ruled the City of Plainfield's argument that the charitable purpose of the Bierstadt paintings is impractical because there is no location within the city where the paintings could be beneficial as unpersuasive.
Additionally, the judge said, the plaintiff has not sufficiently demonstrated why the paintings cannot be placed in another location.
Judge Mega also said evidence shows that Coles would not have intended to have the paintings sold. The donor's intent was to donate the paintings for their historical value and artistic beauty in memory of his father.
Mr. Minchello asked the judge to mark the decision as final for the purposes of appeal.
The Plainfield Arts Council applauded Judge Mega’s ruling: “These paintings were left to Plainfield residents to view and enjoy, and we applaud the decision that says they must remain under the ownership of the residents,” said Arne Aakre, President. “Bierstadt is recognized as one of the greatest landscape artists in history. We in Plainfield are privileged to have these masterpieces as part of our legacy as a city with a rich history of celebrating the arts.”
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