MILWAUKEE (CN) – A woman claims in court that a University of Wisconsin art history professor agreed to store her Grant Wood painting “Sultry Night” at the school’s art museum – then put it up for auction.
Martha Nesbit Frankwicz, 82, sued James Dennis and Jackson Auction Co., in Dane County Court. Dennis today is listed as Professor Emeritus of American Art for UW-Wisconsin’s Department of Art History.
Frankwicz claims that the professor, who is a family acquaintance, agreed to store “Sultry Night” in 1995 when Frankwicz’s husband became disabled and they had to move to a smaller home.
Frankwicz says she believed he had the painting safe at the university’s art museum, the Elvejhem Museum of Art, now known as the Chazen Museum of Art, from March 25, 1995 until April 28 this year.
But she says she recently was tipped by a friend, who “overheard a conversation” that the painting had been put up for sale by an Iowa auction house.
Frankwicz claims her attorney confirmed that Jackson Auction Co. of Cedar Falls, Iowa, did have the painting and Prof. Dennis was listed as the seller.
She claims that Dennis refuses to relinquish the painting and it remains at the Iowa auction house.
Frankwicz says her parents were lifelong friends of Grant Wood, who bought numerous paintings, sketches, lithographs and other works directly from the artist and displayed them in their home. Frankwicz inherited “Sultry Night” and other Grant Wood artwork when her parents died. “Sultry Night” was the most valuable.
Frankwicz says in her complaint that Dennis developed a relationship with her family when he interviewed them for his book, “Grant Wood, A Study in American Art and Culture,” which he published in 1975. The book includes a photograph of another Grant Wood piece, “Self-Portrait,” taken in Frankwicz’s parents’ home.
Over the years, Frankwicz says, she and Dennis continued a relationship centered around her collection of Grant Wood’s art. He helped her sell Wood’s cartoon drawing “Parson Weem’s Fable” and his “Self-Portrait.” She allowed him to bring people into her home to see the artwork on display, and she privately toured his Frank Lloyd Wright home with her friends.
Through these interactions, she says, Dennis “gained the trust and confidence” of Frankwicz and her family. She claims he told her that his position at the university would allow for him to store “Sultry Night” safely in the art museum. She says she never gave the painting to Dennis, but always planned to bequeath it to her children, as her parents did for her.
Frankwicz, sued Jackson Auction for interpleader purposes only. She seeks an injunction to prohibit sale or removal of the artwork, declaratory relief and replevin to confirm that she is the true owner of “Sultry Night.”
She is represented by John Duncan Varda with of DeWitt Ross & Stevens, of Madison.