Howard University Gets Drawing Back After Judge Says It Was Stolen Art

October 28, 2022 by Tom Ramstack
Howard University Gets Drawing Back After Judge Says It Was Stolen Art
Howard University’s most durable and forceful monument, dedicated in 1939, and designed by architect Albert I. Cassell FAIA. (Photo by Derek E. Morton via Wikimedia Commons)

WASHINGTON — A judge’s ruling last week allows Washington, D.C.’s, Howard University to recover a famed Black artist’s drawing that its attorneys say was stolen in the 1970s.

The married North Carolina couple that held Charles White’s “Centralia Madonna” argued unsuccessfully that university officials knew the drawing was missing for years but waited too long to reclaim it.

They said laches barred the lawsuit in federal court in New York. Laches is an equitable defense that bars plaintiffs from asserting their rights because of an unreasonable delay.

White was an artist-in-residence at Howard University in the 1940s. The university purchased the drawing from him in 1947.

Larry and Virginia Borders said they received it as a gift from a friend shortly after it disappeared from the Howard University art collection. The friend, J.D. Kibler Jr., did not tell them where he got the drawing. He has since died.

The Borders said Albert Carter, the art gallery curator at the time, knew the drawing was missing but never tried to get it back. The Borders were unaware it was stolen.

U.S. District Judge Lewis J. Liman said the way the “thinly staffed” gallery operated in the 1970s on the sprawling campus meant the theft could have been overlooked. Howard University often loaned artwork to other museums or collections, he said.

Howard University sued to get it back after being contacted by the auction house Sotheby’s. The Borders were trying to sell the drawing, which Sotheby’s appraised at $300,000 to $500,000.

While Sotheby’s researched its authenticity, its appraisers traced it as stolen artwork and notified Howard University.

“Sotheby’s provided Howard with the identity of the current owners, and approximately one month later, Howard filed suit against the Borders,” the judge said. “The evidence therefore supports that Howard was not previously aware of its claim and, as soon as it became aware, acted with due haste.”

Under U.S. law, a thief cannot pass title to artwork no matter how many subsequent people claimed it in good faith as their property.

The case is Howard University v. Borders et al., case number 1:20-cv-04716, in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.

Tom can be reached at [email protected] and @TomRamstack

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