Thornton Dial Estate Withdraws Lawsuit Against Dealer Over High Museum Acquisition

What's behind a quickly withdrawn lawsuit over a major museum donation?

Thornton Dial attends the 2015 Gordon Parks Foundation Awards Dinner at Cipriani Wall Street on June 2, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images)

Almost as quickly as it was filed, an extraordinarily complicated lawsuit brought by heirs of the artist Thornton Dial against his longtime dealer William S. Arnett has been withdrawn. The complaint centered on the rightful ownership of a group of works that were acquired by the High Museum of Art in Atlanta this past spring from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation. The nonprofit, established by the Atlanta-based Arnett in 2010, is dedicated to preserving and promoting work by African American artists from the American South.

The case was filed on October 3 in US District Court for the Northern District of Georgia and voluntarily dismissed just over a week later, on October 12. The 40-page complaint, brought by three of Dial’s heirs, sought to recover all works of art by Dial in Arnett’s possession and argued that he did not have the right to transfer them to the High Museum. The heirs also sought to prevent the dealer from “disposing or otherwise alienating or damaging” any of the art, as well as damages for allegedly breaching a law governing art consignments in Georgia.

An attorney for the Dial family did not immediately respond to a request for comment. It is not clear what motivated them to withdraw the suit. The fact that it was dismissed without prejudice means they could file suit again.

Dial was born in poverty in 1928 to a sharecropping family in Emelle, Alabama, and endured a life of hardship. Though he never received formal art training, he used found objects to create sculptures and became known for his large-scale assemblage paintings. His work is in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC.

The High Museum in Atlanta, meanwhile, has the largest public collection of Dial’s work, and presented a solo show dedicated to him in 2011. The museum acquired 13 more works by Dial in April from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation in a part-sale, part-gift. The trove included Crossing Waters (2006–2011), the largest painting the artist ever made. The complaint alleges that Arnett did not have the right to sell or donate Crossing Waters, among other works, to the foundation or the museum.

The complaint included several revealing documents that shed light on the business relationship between Dial (who passed away in January 2016) and Arnett. They worked together for around 25 years. A 2008 document lays out Arnett’s purchase of a 75 percent stake in the Dial family’s art for $1.5 million, which was to be paid in monthly installments over a 15-year period.

Another document from 2012 appears to deepen the relationship further. It outlines Arnett’s financial support for the artist and his family, including the “provision of a home for the Dial family at a cost in excess of $350,000,” as well as property taxes, household expenses, funds for art supplies, and travel expenses for the artist and other family members, which averaged about $100,000 over the course of the relationship.

The High Museum declined to comment, noting that it is not a party to the lawsuit. Maxwell Anderson, president of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, did not immediately respond to artnet News’s request for comment. When the lawsuit was first reported on October 6, Anderson told the Atlanta Journal Constitution: “Although the Souls Grown Deep Foundation is not a party to this lawsuit, we are working closely with the Dial family and our museum partners, and are confident that we will be able to resolve this matter expeditiously.”

“We believe the suit is frivolous,” John Moye, the attorney for Arnett, tells artnet News. “We don’t agree with their characterization of the facts or their characterization of the documents.” Moye says the lawsuit is built on a mischaracterization that the works were consigned to Arnett, when in fact they were purchased for “a significant amount of money.”

The record for a work by Dial at auction is $40,000, set in January 2016 for the mixed media work Hard Labour (1998) at Christie’s sale of outsider and vernacular art. The artnet Price Database lists a total of 43 works at auction for Dial. Of these, four works failed to sell and one was withdrawn.

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