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MCA tries to save photo caught in bankruptcy mess

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Dec. 13--Robert Fitzpatrick, director of Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art, was in New York City early last month poking about in the ruins of the fourth-largest bankruptcy in U.S. history -- that of the commodities and futures brokerage Refco Inc.

But unlike the creditors and claimants clamoring for sales of Refco's remaining assets, Fitzpatrick was trying to save just one photographic print from the discard pile.

The print is one of six of Andreas Gursky's "Avenue of the Americas" in a super-scale (71/4-by-111/2 feet) format, but only one of the 440 works in Refco's stellar contemporary photography collection. The collection is divided between Refco offices in lower Manhattan and the West Loop of Chicago, the city where the firm was founded in 1969.

The widespread assumption is that the collection will be auctioned, possibly as early as May. "No matter what they do with the rest of the collection," said Fitzpatrick, "our position is that this [Gursky] photograph is not part of it and can't be sold without our permission."

On Oct. 17, Refco filed for Chapter 11 protection from creditors in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in New York, citing $48.6 billion in liabilities. The filing came just a frantic week after the disclosure of an accounting scandal involving its then-CEO, Phillip Bennett. Bennett has since been indicted on fraud and other charges but has denied guilt.

With Refco's assets up for grabs, the MCA on Nov. 9 asked the court to safeguard its interest in the Gursky print, which is part of Refco's collection in New York.

In a court filing, the museum said that Gursky's U.S. representative, the Matthew Marks Gallery in New York, sold the print in 2002 to Refco at a below-market price of around $150,000 on the condition that it eventually be donated to the MCA.

Refco gave the museum a 10 percent interest in the print -- which allowed the firm an immediate tax benefit -- and promised to transfer the remaining 90 percent as an unrestricted gift by Dec. 31, 2007, the filing states.

"A partial gift [to a museum] can't be revoked," Fitzpatrick contended. He said the filing was an effort to "protect the MCA and its interests and the principle of the partial gift."

He estimated the current value of the Gursky print at $300,000 to $500,000.

James Craig, a Refco spokesman, said the firm is hopeful that the ownership issue can be resolved through negotiations with the MCA. He said he was not aware of another museum making a similar claim against Refco art.

As for the rest of the art holdings, he said, "All options are being considered regarding the disposition of the collection." He declined to estimate the collection's value.

"It's a great shame," said Frances Dittmer, contemplating the probable scattering of a collection that she astutely built as well as the dismantling of a trading behemoth that her ex-husband, Thomas, helped to found and formerly led.

Starting when Refco was a small trading company and she lived in Lake Forest, Dittmer said she worked on the theory that "as long as we have to put something on the wall, it might as well be good art." As Refco expanded here and in New York, where it moved its headquarters in the 1980s, so did Dittmer's collecting ambitions.

Reached at her current home, in Aspen, Colo., Dittmer recounted how she built not one, but two corporate collections.

The first was begun around 1975 and would eventually hold 321 works of painting, drawing, sculpture, installation and photography. After market setbacks in 1997 and 1998, Refco ordered her to sell what she could of the works to raise funds.

With permission from Bennett -- who succeeded Thomas Dittmer as CEO in 1998 -- she said she began to rebuild around 80 photos remaining from the first collection.

She said she told Bennett, "There's very interesting art being done. It's much less expensive. And I believe the employees will relate better to it because it's image-based."

With co-curator Adam Brooks, who had begun to work for Refco in the mid-1980s while a graduate student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Dittmer established the second, photography-based collection. Among the hundreds of works acquired was Gursky's "Avenue of the Americas," which Dittmer confirmed was intended to be a future donation to the MCA.

But in early 2003, the company froze further acquisitions. Dittmer, who would turn all curatorial duties over to Brooks that spring, said she suspected the firm might be preparing itself for sale. Indeed, a private equity firm bought a controlling stake in Refco in 2004.

Also in 2003, a 272-page catalog of the collection, "Subjective Realities," was published, opening eyes to what was then hanging in Refco trading rooms, offices and corridors. Some 100 artists were represented, among them Walker Evans, Cindy Sherman, Matthew Barney, Richard Prince, Chris Burden, John Baldessari, Gregory Crewdson, Shirin Neshat, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Vanessa Beecroft, Sam Taylor-Wood, Bernd and Hilla Becher, Thomas Struth and Thomas Ruff.

All current trends were in evidence: portraiture, landscape, narrative and, especially, conceptual and documentation -- works derived from ideas or performances, many by artists grounded in other media who happen to make photographs.

"It's a helluva collection," said Rod Slemmons, head of the Museum of Contemporary Photography at Columbia College Chicago. "Very few weak spots."

Although the collection since has been put in storage, a visitor last month to Refco's offices at 550 W. Jackson Blvd. could step off the elevator and peruse several works in the reception area. One was a photo by Vik Muniz of his re-creation, in chocolate syrup, of a seminal 1950 photograph of Jackson Pollock at work.

In the large trading room were oversize, anonymous portraits by Ruff. A nearby conference room contained Barney's "Cremaster 1: Ms. Goodyear," Gursky's "Unibochum" as well as Craig Kalpakjian's "Corridor," the last an image of a bland institutional interior.

"In fact, this is a space that doesn't exist," Brooks said of the Kalpakjian. "This work was made entirely in the computer, using architectural software and the imagination of the artist. The notion of what a photograph is at this point in time is entirely open to question."

Brooks, 46, has been "Adam the Art Guy" at Refco for almost 20 years. He has been available to educate curious traders on the merits of the works on the walls or shepherd students, artists and collectors on office tours.

He said he could not comment on the disputed Gursky or the disposition of the collection.

"Sooner or later, it was inevitable. Everything ends," he said of his association with the works. "It's been a really interesting experience -- certainly for me, hopefully for the employees who work around the art."

Tribune art critic Alan G. Artner contributed to this report


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