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Court to decide future of Frick family archives

Friday, June 29, 2001

By Marylynne Pitz, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

For most of her 96 years, Helen Clay Frick was camera-shy.

But in the 1920s and 1930s, the Pittsburgh heiress dispatched photographers all over Europe and the United States to record priceless art treasures in public and private collections.

The Pittsburgh heiress was on a mission to preserve art. As a Red Cross volunteer during World War I, the daughter of industrialist Henry Clay Frick repatriated Belgian refugees and saw the destruction of art when bombs fell on Paris.

The loss of valuable European art, which she had studied since childhood, fueled her desire to pay photographers to record the world's masterpieces.

As a result, the Frick Art Reference Library in New York City, which the heiress founded in 1920, holds 1 million photographs and 56,000 negatives that are an invaluable record of art and architectural history.

The library was helpful when the U.S. entered World War II because American bombers used maps to avoid damaging Europe's valuable art and museums. Today, museums all over the world rely on the library to authenticate paintings.

"The photo collection is pretty amazing," said Patricia Barnett, chief librarian of the Frick Art Reference Library, the research arm of the Frick Collection, a museum of European and American art built by Henry Clay Frick.

A soft-spoken Pittsburgh native, Barnett spent most of yesterday testifying in the courtroom of Allegheny County Orphans' Court Judge Lee Mazur.

Barnett plays a small part in the controversy over who will control another unique slice of history known as the Frick family archives, which are stored on the second floor of the Car & Carriage Museum at Clayton in Point Breeze.

Ten Frick descendants want to move the archives -- which include Helen Clay Frick's 4,500 photographs, voluminous correspondence, diaries, scrapbooks, films and letters -- from Pittsburgh to New York City's Frick Art Reference Library.

The Frick family archives document the rise of American industry and labor, Victorian life and art collecting in the Gilded Age.

E. David Margolis and Daniel P. Gallagher Jr., lawyers for the Frick descendants, want Mazur to approve the transfer.

The Fricks, Margolis said, want to "take these archives, put them in the proper condition and in the hands of professionals and make them available to scholars and researchers."

Arabella Dane and Martha Frick Symington Sanger, two of Helen Clay Frick's grandnieces, oppose the transfer of the archives.

Both women contend their great aunt's will makes it clear that the Frick family archives should remain in Pittsburgh at the Victorian house museum known as Clayton. Other Frick descendants disagree with that interpretation of the will.

Most of yesterday's testimony focused on how the archives would be divided and cataloged by Barnett and Rush Miller, director of the University of Pittsburgh's library system.

In an agreement signed in March, the Helen Clay Frick Foundation, made up solely of Frick family members, decided to divide the archives between Pittsburgh and New York City.

The business papers of industrialist Henry Clay Frick would go to Pitt's Archives of Industrial Society. While some material related to Western Pennsylvania would stay here, the rest would be transferred to Manhattan. Dane and Sanger were unaware of the agreement and oppose it.

Barnett, who earned her library science degree at Pitt, believes art libraries should share information and worked on many projects to achieve that goal at the Metropolitan Museum of Art before moving to the Frick Collection.

Barnett said she is eager to begin working with Miller and indexing the Frick family archives.

"We both have digital labs on site. Digital comes closest to facsimiles," Barnett testified.

During cross-examination by Albert G. Feczko Jr., Barnett said the portion of the agreement that calls for preserving and cataloging the archives can be terminated by the Frick Collection with 30 days' notice.

Feczko pressed Barnett on whether the agreement spells out how the collaboration will occur between the two libraries.

"Is there anywhere that it says that you and Mr. Miller have to collaborate?"

"It's what we do," Barnett replied. "And we usually do it without all this legal paper."

Testimony resumes today.



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