Missing in Action

           BACK IN 1984, Riley Harrison got tired of worrying about the well-being of a family heirloom and began to explore storage options. The artifact was an 18th century Chinese porcelain punch bowl that had been in his family for over 150 years, and Harrison feared the bowl would be broken or stolen. He decided to lend it to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, where it would be safe and the public could view it. To date, however, the bowl has never been displayed. Why?

           "From day one, nothing has gone right," says Harrison. He hand-delivered his precious cargo to the museum in '84; several days later, he got a letter from the Museum officially accepting his "gift." "I was totally mystified. I wasn't in the financial position to make an outright donation, unless I received some substantial tax benefits, but I was perfectly willing to make a long-term loan for display purposes," he says.

           While Harrison and the administrative staff were clearing up their misunderstanding, he was informed that the bowl needed to be "conserved." "The bowl needed cleaning so I didn't give it a second thought," he says. A number of years passed, and Harrison did not hear from the Institute again until February 1992. According to Harrison, he then learned that conservation meant more than cleaning. "I received a letter that my family's prized possession was now in two pieces, and they would like my permission to perform more repairs," he says.

           At some point in the bowl's 200-year history, it cracked. The fissures had been repaired by a procedure known as "stapling," a standard procedure used in the past for restorative work. The Institute removed the staples and replaced them with an adhesive. But the glue didn't hold. "The adhesive was faulty," Harrison maintains. But as the bowl was of little financial or aesthetic value in two pieces, Harrison once again granted his permission. A few more years went by without any further communication from museum staffers, and one day, Harrison decided to go to the Institute and view his piece of art.

           It was down in a basement storage area, unrepaired--and, claims Harrison, with additional unreported damage. "I felt sick and somewhat deceived," he says. "I took it down there because it was a work of art you wouldn't normally see in the Midwest. I was just trying to be a good patron of the arts." He rescinded permission for repairs, and in July 1995 he sent a letter requesting that the Institute file an insurance claim.

           According to Harrison, he was informed that the MIA would be "happy" to start the process, but cautioned him that it would take at least six months to resolve. While Harrison did not have the item appraised, he claims the MIA estimated the bowl's value at $20,000-$30,000. Another eight months passed before Harrison heard from Institute representatives, and then it was to say that they wanted to repair the bowl and return it. There was no mention of insurance claims or compensation. He answered with a certified letter threatening legal action. MIA officials responded by having their attorney write Harrison and tell him to pick up his bowl within 20 days or they would proceed with the repairs before returning it. "This unilateral decision smacks of arrogance to me," says Harrison.

           But according to Director Evan Maurer, the staff has been anything but arrogant in their dealings with Harrison. "We have been corresponding with him and trying to settle this for years. We will do whatever it takes to make him happy," says Maurer. He similarly defends the quality and expertise of the repair work done on behalf of the Institute by the Upper Midwest Conservation Association. "These types [of bowls] are big and easily broken," he adds. Maurer claims wear and tear, not the museum's conservation efforts, were the main problem.

           Maurer also does not feel that Harrison's claim for compensation is warranted. "It is not common practice unless there has been irreparable [physical] damage or aesthetic damage resulting in the loss of value. Our experts have concurred that by their conservation, they have increased the value of the bowl," he says. And while Maurer claims he has papers attesting to its increased value, he admits that he has not yet communicated this to Harrison. "I was going to write him a letter today," he says. But Maurer's attempts at an amicable resolution may be too late. "At this point, I'm being hard-nosed," says Harrison. "I'm tired of turning my face and getting it slapped."

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