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School, gallery wrangle over bits of ballet history

Jennifer Bahssin looked at the costumes, musical scores and old playbills as a piece of American ballet history from one of its famed impresarios.

Noted ballet instructor and artistic director George Verdak, who once danced with the renowned Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, owned one of the world's largest collections of dance memorabilia when he died in 1993.

Bahssin paid an Indiana dealer more than $100,000 for a part of it in May , bringing hundreds of items to her Central Gallery in downtown St. Petersburg.

Now Butler University in Indianapolis is saying Bahssin doesn't rightfully own those items _ it does.

Butler filed suit against Bahssin last week in Pinellas-Pasco court, seeking to inspect her collection and force the return of some Ballet Russe materials donated to the school in the 1970s and missing more than 20 years.

Butler and Bahssin agreed Friday to allow university officials to take a preliminary inventory of her collection today so the school can determine what, if anything, it rightfully owns.

Butler is only interested in materials from the Ballet Russe, which composes just a portion of Bahssin's collection.

Verdak was chairman of Butler's dance department before leaving the school in 1978. Butler believes items donated to the school by the Ballet Russe might have found their way into Verdak's collection before he died.

Bahssin, 37, daughter of a New York gallery operator, said research convinces her that her materials were part of Verdak's personal collection, leaving Butler with no ownership claim.

"It came from his house," Bahssin said at her gallery on Central Avenue. "It was owned by him. I bought everything from a reputable dealer. Butler's lawsuit is an inconvenience for me, and it's been a lot of harassment that's undue and frivolous."

She vowed to return without a fight anything Butler can prove it owns.

"I don't want to handle anything that doesn't have 100 percent, sound title," Bahssin said.

Butler officials declined to discuss specifics of their lawsuit, because litigation is still pending.

"We own a substantial collection of Ballet Russe materials, and some of it does not appear to be in our possession any longer," said Steve Roberson, associate dean of Butler's Jordan College of Fine Arts. "It's quite a mystery."

The Ballet Russe is regarded as one of the 20th century's foremost ballet companies, touring the United States for decades. Renowned artists such as Salvador Dali designed sets and costumes for it.

It was dissolved in the early 1960s and its property donated to Butler.

According to Butler's lawsuit, the Ballet Russe items were occasionally loaned to other groups for performances. At times, the suit said, items were stored at Verdak's Indianapolis house.

By 1980, the university had compiled a list of missing items valued at about $126,000.

Butler did not say if it ever sought the return of materials from Verdak before his death in 1993.

After Verdak died, his estate passed through several hands, ultimately coming into the possession of two Indianapolis dealers of ballet antiques. Bahssin made her purchase from them.

Butler has filed a separate lawsuit against the dealers in an Indiana court.

Butler became aware that Bahssin had purchased Ballet Russe items when she called Butler on May 8 to ask if the school had other materials to sell.

Bahssin wants to display some of the collection in her gallery in the months to come.

"Nothing like this has ever come to me before," she said. "I'm excited to have it."