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Ringling Museum Asian art donor sues to get millions back

 
Helga Wall-Apelt was unhappy with the slow progress.
Helga Wall-Apelt was unhappy with the slow progress.
Published July 3, 2016

Sounds of Japanese and Indian drumming filled the air. Hundreds of guests sampled tea and watched karate demonstrations and dancers swirling in colorful costumes.

But one person did not attend the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art's community festival in May, celebrating the opening of the Center for Asian Art in the Dr. Helga Wall-Apelt Gallery of Asian Art.

Helga Wall-Apelt.

The donor whose name is most prominently associated with the new center was absent. She is suing the Ringling for breach of contract and is asking that millions in donations be returned. A trial has been set for February.

Museums work hard to nurture their donors. They fete, flatter and placate them, hoping to establish a long-term relationship. It's the reason we see names plastered on building facades, wings, galleries, even stairwells and elevators.

Such a dramatic public disintegration of a relationship between the Ringling and a patron is unusual in the art community. Museums prize discretion in their dealings with those who give.

But in the case of Wall-Apelt, dozens of court documents help unfold an ongoing art world mystery.

• • •

The announcement in 2006 came with fanfare.

Wall-Apelt, a retired physician who is now 76, had pledged $4.1 million to the Ringling for construction of a wing dedicated to Asian art.

"It is more than a philanthropic act," John Wetenhall, former director of the Ringling, said at the time. "It is a gift of great passion and vision."

In addition, she promised her extensive collection of Asian art, which was described as being worth many millions. Among the objects were Chinese jades exhibited at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg in 1993; a large gilt lacquer figure of a Buddha known as Vairocana, often associated with peace; and bronze sculptures of Buddhist deities.

And she pledged $4 million more to the museum's endowment. The construction gift was about half of the anticipated cost of constructing a new addition and renovating an existing wing. It was based on the assumption that the museum, which is owned by Florida State University and by extension, Florida, would receive state matching funds.

In December 2007, Wall-Apelt made a payment of $6.1 million to the Ringling for construction and endowment so the museum could apply for those funds. But with budget constraints, the Legislature froze them in 2008 and the Ringling project was put on hold so that alternate funding could be found in case the matching funds were not restored.

Two times between 2008 and 2011, both parties signed paperwork that reflected a new timeline. Despite the delays, Steven High, the Ringling's current director, said Wall-Apelt was actively engaged in decisions, especially in the design of the pavilion, which differs dramatically from the Ringling's Italianate style.

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"She wanted a significant architectural feature," High said.

According to documents filed by the Ringling and FSU, she participated in meetings with the architects and wasn't happy: "The architect was tasked with drafting . . . drawings for a completely different design." She also attended meetings and "was aware of unexpected delays experienced by the construction team."

But all was not well.

In July 2013, FSU officials and High received from Wall-Apelt a notice of default, listing five examples of the museum's failings: failure to obtain matching funds; failure to finish construction in the time agreed upon; failure to exhibit her collection; failure to hire a curator for Asian art; and misuse of funds.

The museum, High said, tried to resolve the issues with her attorney, but they couldn't reach an agreement.

The museum broke ground on Jan. 27, 2014, after securing funding from FSU, the FSU Foundation and the Ringling to replace the state match, which remained frozen.

Four days later, Wall-Apelt filed suit against the Ringling, FSU and the FSU Foundation.

In a deposition, an FSU lawyer asked Wall-Apelt if she had been negatively impacted by how long the project was taking.

"I can say yes because . . . I had no patience anymore," she said.

"Other than your patience, anything else?"

"That's enough."

When asked what damages she is seeking, she said, "I want my money back."

She said she had not visited the site to see its progress.

"The project for me is dead."

High and FSU officials said they were stunned by the turn of events and had expected to negotiate a resolution.

"Our first concern was that if we had done anything wrong, we had to make it right," High said. "No one felt we had done anything wrong."

Two of Wall-Apelt's lawyers wouldn't comment on any aspect of the pending suit, nor would they make their client available for comment. An attorney for the museum and FSU didn't respond to a request for comment.

The wording in the lawsuit makes clear her anger and disappointment:

"Defendants, from the outset, took advantage of Plaintiff's good will and her passion for providing the community with a resource devoted to Asian art. They took all her artworks and the majority of the resources she has for living the remainder of her life on this earth. They made promises and statements, which they have breached, and to this day, eight years later, they have not built this Asian wing."

• • •

Her father, a prominent Jewish physician, fled from Germany to Switzerland when the Nazis came to power. When she was 15, he died and left her a small statue of Buddha.

Of her father, she said in a profile by a former Ringling docent that "he had explored Buddhism as a way of coping with the Nazi experience, I think. He taught me how to meditate and triggered my interest in Eastern culture and philosophy."

After she retired from her medical practice in Germany as an internist and radiologist, all the while building a collection of Asian art, she immigrated to the United States in the early 1990s and settled with her husband, a tax consultant now deceased, in Sarasota.

In 2000, she put her collection on public view in a rented building she named the Museum of Asian Art. But it was too much for her to maintain.

"There was huge cost in running it and she had been examining her options," Wetenhall said in an FSU publication in 2006. "She decided that her best option would be joining with us."

"It had to do with financial problems," Wall-Apelt said in a 2015 deposition. "The rate (rent) was very high and I could not afford it anymore and membership was low. . . . I approached John Wetenhall . . . if we could make a deal in bringing my museum into Ringling Museum."

The Ringling was interested.

"There were about 60 to 70 pieces that we wanted to use," said Fan Zhang, the Ringling's former associate curator of Asian art, now senior associate curator of Chinese art at San Francisco's Asian Art Museum. "In a collection like this, you never see every piece as excellent. But it was a significant gift."

Wall-Apelt had experience as a philanthropist, supporting the Sarasota Opera, for example. But as she came into the rarefied world of high-level museum patronage, joined the Ringling board of trustees and interacted with staff, observations began to emerge about her style of engagement with others.

Kay Kipling, in a 2013 article in Sarasota Magazine, wrote, "Here in Sarasota, she has been a supporter of the opera and circus, and is known for expressing her opinions strongly and bluntly — meaning some have found her hard to take." No one associated with the Ringling would comment on her personality for this story.

Compounding the tension, Wall-Apelt was still on the hook for $2 million toward the endowment, as part of the gift agreement. In a 2013 email to a fellow trustee, Wall-Apelt wrote:

"It seems I still owe FSU more than $2 million. . . . I am totally unaware of this and in a state of shock."

That same day, she wrote her notice alleging that Ringling was in default of their agreement.

As a result of not wanting to pay an additional $2 million, "you decided to write your notice of default?" asked a Ringling attorney during deposition.

"Yes," she said.

• • •

In the middle of the fighting, most of the art sat wrapped in storage where no one but curators and other museum caretakers could see it.

Wall-Apelt believed the museum was delaying giving it back to her on purpose. She said she sent a letter in January via FedEx asking for the art back. Ringling said they never received it.

"We can't just hand over the art without a formal request," High said in a recent interview.

In a deposition, Wall-Apelt said she couldn't recall when she sent the letter asking for the art back. When one did arrive in April or May, High said, she was told she could claim the collection.

It stayed at Ringling for about five months. Wall-Apelt arranged for the collection to be packed and taken away by James D. Julia Auctioneers in Fairfield, Maine.

To High's knowledge, Wall-Apelt didn't approach another museum about donating it as a gift, "and I think I would have heard about it."

Through the closely knit grapevine that is the art world, they only heard she wanted to sell it. They tried to stop her.

In January 2015, Ringling attorneys filed a motion for temporary injunction to halt the sale. A judge denied the motion on a technicality. To lay claim to the art, the Ringling and FSU would have had to sue Wall-Apelt.

Museums will do almost anything to avoid that scenario.

So why was the motion filed?

"I can't answer that," High said. "Maybe it was a legal strategy. But I wasn't going to sue a donor."

• • •

In March 2015, most of Wall-Apelt's collection of more than 1,000 works was put on the auction block.

The Ringling had never had the collection appraised, High said, and would not put a financial value on it. Past estimates have varied widely, most around $30 million to $40 million. In reality, estimates are usually arbitrary. A work is worth what someone will pay for it.

Overseeing the evaluation and estimates for the auction was James Callahan, a respected Asian art expert.

"It was an eclectic collection," Callahan said. "Good, bad and indifferent. There were some very fine bronzes. She didn't discuss the Ringling, nor would I go there. I didn't know her well, but she seemed like a nice person."

About half of the works sold. The star of the sale was the large statue of the Vairocana Buddha. Estimated at $40,000 to $60,000, it was purchased for almost $380,000.

In all, the auction realized almost $2 million. Callahan does not know what her plans are for the unsold works.

"Perhaps she was disappointed more didn't sell," he said. "She said we had done all we could to get it sold, which was gracious."

When the Ringling's new center opened, its works from the permanent collection were supplemented with art on loan. The plan, Zhang said, had always been to use loans, but more were necessary without the Wall-Apelt collection.

"To me none of it made sense," High said. "It was her dream. And we've done it. . . . But we believe we will prevail.

"Unless things drastically change," High said, Wall-Apelt's name will remain in the gallery.

One of her former sculptures is among the significant loans in the galleries. A local collector purchased it at the auction and offered it to the Ringling. It is a bodhisattva, a Buddhist symbol of compassion.

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Lennie Bennett at (727) 893-8293 or lbennett@tampabay.com.