Sotheby's, a Retired Teacher, and California Artist Martín Ramirez

Auctionable behavior in the middle of a folk-art fight

Last January, at the intersection of art and money, a retired teacher living in rural California quietly contacted Sotheby's. And so began a bitter legal battle being waged on two coasts.

The teacher, Maureen Hammond, wanted to engage the high-end auction house to sell 17 previously unknown works by the California artist Martín Ramirez, whose work has skyrocketed in value in the past two years. But his descendants had just begun an effort to claim a piece of his legacy for themselves.

Ramirez, a native of Mexico who died in 1963, is notable not only for his unusual artistic vision, but also because he did most of his work while incarcerated in a California mental hospital for 32 years.

Last year, the American Folk Art Museum on West 53rd Street honored Ramirez with a J.P. Morgan–sponsored show that included 97 of his works—the largest such retrospective in 20 years. New York Times art critic Roberta Smith called Ramirez "simply one of the greatest artists of the 20th century." In 2003, one of his pieces sold for $95,000. Today, some of his works might fetch up to $200,000.

A trove of 17 undiscovered works by such a well- regarded artist certainly had significant value. Hammond sent the works to Sotheby's, but just as the auction house was preparing a sale, two of Ramirez's grandchildren intervened. They claimed Hammond had no right to sell the work. Lawyers got involved, and Sotheby's opted to hold off the sale until the dispute was settled.

Ramirez came to the United States from Jalisco in 1926, at age 30, to work and send money home to his wife and four children. In 1931, homeless and unable to communicate, he was arrested, diagnosed with schizophrenia and "catatonia," and committed to a mental hospital, where he was traumatized by the other patients.

At some point, Ramirez, who rarely spoke, began to paint and draw. He would work on the floor with a small lead pencil or crayons, squatting on his haunches. Starved for materials, he created his work on the kind of paper that doctors roll out on their examination tables. He cut images out of magazines and used bread and oatmeal and potatoes and spit as a kind of homemade glue. He would glue scraps of paper together, or paper bags. He often tried to hide his drawings under his bed, because hospital workers typically took them away and burned them at the end of each day.

It was at the DeWitt State Hospital in Auburn, California, that Ramirez encountered Dr. Tarmo Pasto, a psychology professor at Sacramento State University. Pasto recognized Ramirez's talent immediately and began to study him, eventually becoming his benefactor and friend. He visited constantly, brought Ramirez drawing materials like colored pencils, and arranged for his work to be seen by others. He even arranged gallery shows and later gave one of Ramirez's pieces to the Guggenheim. Eventually, in 1971, he sold his collection of 300 Ramirez works to a Chicago artist, Jim Nutt, and gallery dealer, Phyllis Kind.

"Without Pasto, there would have been no Martín Ramirez," says Hammond's lawyer, Rick Richmond. And that's where his client comes in. In 1961, as a young graduate student, Hammond was studying the therapeutic possibilities of art. She contacted Pasto, who eventually sent her for study 40 works by people in mental hospitals, including the 17 Ramirez pieces.

"He described him only as a patient," Hammond says. "I didn't know his name. No one knew it would turn out to be valuable—that's just my good fortune. But it's not a piggy bank that someone else can rob, either."

Hammond, who now lives in Needles, California, never met Ramirez, but says she doesn't believe he was schizophrenic, because his paintings have a coherence that one doesn't see in the work of true schizophrenics. "He was certainly conscious of his environment," she says.

That view may be seen as somewhat self-serving, since it helps her case that Ramirez was mentally competent and therefore able to give away his work. But others who have studied the artist's life hold the same view.

Hammond tells the Voice that she never concealed the fact that she has been in possession of the works for more than four decades. She used them in her classes to demonstrate how art can be therapeutic. She was also aware of Ramirez's growing reputation, but she didn't think about selling the works until recently. At age 69, she is so concerned about her finances that she is considering going back to work.

"I began to think about what this could do for my family," she says. "My daughter needed eye surgery, and there's college tuition for my 10 grandchildren. And I have some debts."

Pasto's generosity with Ramirez's work went unquestioned at the time. Indeed, it appears that Ramirez gave away a lot of his work. In 2007, a middle-school teacher named Peggy Dunievitz came forward with about 100 Ramirez works that had been left to her by her father, who had worked at the hospital for many years. She contacted the American Folk Art Museum via e-mail. The curator was floored. Someone compared it to finding King Tut's tomb.

It was the Dunievitz find that finally stirred the Ramirez clan into action. One key bit of information left out of the laudatory reviews by curators and critics is that Ramirez's family never saw a dime from his work. When Ramirez was alive, his family remained in Mexico, supposedly too poor to visit him. He received just one visit, from a nephew, during his three decades of incarceration. And at his death in 1963, he was buried in a pauper's grave.

"This was a very poor family in Mexico, and their ability to do anything about it or to come visit was limited," says Eric Lie-berman, a lawyer representing the family.

As Ramirez's reputation grew steadily, a few of his descendants made their way to California.

When word of the Dunievitz find circulated, two grandchildren, Maria Ramirez Miller and Martín Ramirez Salinas, formed an estate last February in Placer County, California, and demanded a piece of the action.

That effort was successful: Dunievitz agreed to give them a portion of the profit from any sales of the paintings—some of which are currently on display at the Ricco Maresca Gallery in Manhattan.

But when the Ramirez clan intervened with Sotheby's and blocked the sale, Hammond was not so willing to settle. In fact, she fired the first legal salvo, filing suit against the Ramirez estate in California federal court for slander and something called tortious interference.

In the suit, Richmond describes the Ramirez clan as "hiring two lawyers to troll the art world and squeeze money from their distant relation to Martín Ramirez." Lieberman calls this statement "outrageous." Shortly thereafter, the Ramirezes filed a lawsuit of their own in federal court in Manhattan, seeking $3 million and claiming that Hammond and Pasto had acted unethically in taking Ramirez's work.

The central legal issue, obviously, is who owns the work today. There, Richmond contends, possession really is nine-tenths of the law. "The law presumes that if someone has something, it's up to the other guy to prove they don't own it," he says.

And what does his client think of the Ramirez clan? "I think they are completely in the wrong," Hammond tells the Voice. "They have absolutely no right to my personal property. Why don't they go picket the Guggenheim?"

The Ramirez family argues that because the artist had been institutionalized, he didn't have the capacity to administer his affairs, including giving away his work. And Pasto, they claim, had no right to act as he did. "The position of the estate is that that person had no authority whatsoever to take any of those works for any purpose," Lieberman says, "and . . . the institution had no such authority either."

Hammond's lawyers recently moved to dismiss the New York case, arguing that it's properly a California dispute. And that's where things stand at the moment. Meanwhile, the 17 Ramirez paintings sit in a vault at Sotheby's, awaiting a final resolution.

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