Letters reveal that donor of Pollock’s ‘Mural’ didn’t want it sold

The donor of a famed Jackson Pollock painting that some state lawmakers are trying to sell asked for the piece back in 1963 after hearing rumors the University of Iowa was considering auctioning it off, according to letters she sent to the school.

Peggy Guggenheim, who died in 1979, gave the masterpiece titled Mural to the university in 1951, school officials said. The 8-by-20-foot Mural now serves as the centerpiece of the university’s art collection, but some legislators are considering a proposal to sell it and use the proceeds to fund art scholarships.

Pollock was an American painter and a major figure in the abstract expressionist movement. He died in 1956 at the age of 44. The painting was valued in 2008 at $140 million.

In a May 1963 letter to then-university president Virgil Hancher, Guggenheim said she’d heard the university was planning to send the painting to London auction house Sotheby’s.

“If this is true, it is extremely unpleasant for me that you should sell my gift, when there are so many museums in the world who would be delighted to own this wonderful painting,” she wrote. “If you no longer wish to have this mural in your university, I must ask you to return it to me.”

That and other letters were posted on the Internet. The university confirmed their authenticity in stories published Saturday in the Des Moines Register and Cedar Rapids Gazette.

Hancher assured Guggenheim that there were no plans to sell the painting and that the university was raising money to expand its art gallery. But he also consulted with a law professor about whether Guggenheim would be able to reclaim the painting

A bill from state Rep. Scott Raecker, R-Urbandale, calls for the sale of the painting to provide scholarships to undergraduate art majors.

University president Sally Mason has urged lawmakers to reject the proposed sale. She said scholarly works given to the school for caretaking cannot be replaced, and Iowa “will suffer a far greater long-term loss in the state’s image and quality of life than any immediate proceeds gained.”

The American Association of Museum’s accreditation commission sent a letter Saturday to state lawmakers condemning the sale. Commission chairwoman Bonnie Styles wrote that the sale could jeopardize the University of Iowa Museum of Art’s accreditation. Without that accreditation, the museum could fall out of favor with donors and the public, she wrote.

A campus rally against the bill is scheduled for Thursday.

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