Bill Cosby, Sitting in Prison, Hopes to Sell Two Major Thomas Hart Benton Paintings for Millions of Dollars

The paintings could be worth a combined $14 million.

Thomas Hart Benton's Going West (1926). Courtesy of Surovek Gallery Palm Beach, Forida.

Disgraced comedian Bill Cosby, who is currently serving a three-to-10 year prison sentence for sexual assault, has been leveraging some of the top works in his art collection, presumably to shore up his finances after a bruising criminal defense trial.

Thomas Hart Benton’s Going West (1926), formerly owned by Bill Cosby, was on display at a Massachusetts art gallery earlier this year, while his wife, Camille, used yet another Benton painting, The Instruction (aka The Bible Lesson), (1940), as collateral for a loan from Asher Edelman’s art finance firm, Art Assure, according to a regulatory filing.

Bill Cosby arrives at the Montgomery County Courthouse in Norristown, Pennsylvania for the second day of hearings in the sexual assault case against him. Photo: Ed Hille-Pool/Getty Images.

Bill Cosby arrives at the Montgomery County Courthouse in Norristown, Pennsylvania, for the second day of hearings in the sexual assault case against him. Photo: Ed Hille-Pool/Getty Images.

The financing statement, known as a Uniform Commercial Code (UCC) filing, documents ownership in real property. It was filed on September 19, about a week before the court handed down Cosby’s sentence. The amount of the loan was not disclosed and Edelman declined to comment, citing client confidentiality.

The price of Benton’s Going West, which was on view at the Granary Gallery on Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts, was also not disclosed. Art historian Henry Adams has called it “one of Benton’s greatest achievements as well as one of the greatest achievements of 20th century American art.” It will go on view at the Surovek Gallery in Palm Beach, Florida, this winter as part of an exhibition on the artist titled “Mechanic of Form,” gallery owner John Surovek confirmed. It is available for sale though he did not cite the asking price.

This past summer, the Vineyard Gazette posted a story about the Benton arriving at Granary, noting that the gallery had “recently acquired” the painting. Before it arrived there, the report said the painting had only been exhibited in public twice in more than 90 years, in a 1927 gallery show and, 50 years later, at a Christie’s auction in New York, where it was purchased for a Connecticut couple who owned it for close to 25 years. It’s not clear when Cosby actually acquired it.

“I acquired it on behalf of the current owner,” Surovek told artnet News. Collectively we thought it was a great opportunity for [Granary Gallery] to exhibit such a spectacular painting on the Vineyard where Benton spent so much time. The painting had not been shown publicly in well over thirty years.”

The artnet Price Database lists over 3,000 sale results for Benton. The highest price achieved at auction is $4.9 million for Ozark Autumn (1949), which was sold at Christie’s New York in May 2015 with an estimate of $2 million to $3 million. To date, 15 paintings by Benton have each sold for more than $1 million at auction.

Going West and The Instruction could have a combined market value of $12 million to $14 million, according to an American art expert cited in Bloomberg. Cosby reportedly paid $105,000 for The Instruction.

Mounting Legal Fees

Cosby has gone through 20 attorneys and is now on his 12th law firm in an effort to appeal the guilty verdict handed down in court this past spring. The sentencing was delivered in September with the judge ordering the 81-year-old actor to go straight to jail. He is currently serving his sentence at the State Correctional Institute at Pheonix, in Pennsylvania. Perry, Shore, Weisenberger, and Zemlock, of Harrisburg is handling Cosby’s appeal. The firm did not respond to artnet News’s request for comment.

It’s not uncommon for collectors in need of cash to leverage their art for loans. Several private banks and other lending agencies that cater to high-net-worth individuals may lend up to half of an artwork’s fair market value. But as ownership issues in these arrangements have become increasingly problematic, most notably in the Salander O’Reilly scandal, UCC filings have become more widely used in the art world to document whole or partial ownership of a particular work.

Cosby and his wife Camille assembled what their former curator David Driskell called “the most significant collection in the hands of an African American family,” in a 2001 book called The Other Side of Color. Their collection focuses specifically on artists of color, in addition to blue-chip works by artists including Renoir, Picasso, and Matisse. They own at least 300 works, according to Bloomberg.

A Lending Controversy

Bill and Camille Cosby had just lent 62 paintings to a show at the National Museum of African Art in Washington D.C. titled “Conversations: African and American Artworks in Dialogue” when the allegations against Cosby began to surface in 2014. The majority of the works had never been loaned before, included those by Romare Bearden, Elizabeth Catlett, Beauford Delaney, Jacob Lawrence, Faith Ringgold, Henry Ossawa Tanner, and Alma Thomas.

A few years later, Cosby was again connected with a show there, “Taking the Stage,” which examined African American contributions to entertainment. In a statement, Lonnie Bunch, founding director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, said:

This is not an exhibition that “honors or celebrates” Bill Cosby but one that acknowledges his role, among many others, in American entertainment. Some people believe that the Smithsonian should eliminate all mention of Bill Cosby as a result of recent revelations. We understand but respectfully disagree. For too long, aspects of African American history have been erased and undervalued, creating an incomplete interpretation of the American past. This museum seeks to tell, in the words of the eminent historian John Hope Franklin, “the unvarnished truth” that will help our visitors to remember and better understand what has often been erased and forgotten. In view of Cosby’s recent sexual assault conviction and sentencing, the museum will change the exhibition label to reflect this.

So far approximately 60 women have accused Cosby of sexual misconduct.

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