Subject's family challenges seminary sale of Eakins portrait

Thomas Eakins' portrait of Msgr. Patrick J. Garvey is for sale, but Garvey's family is trying to halt it.
Thomas Eakins' portrait of Msgr. Patrick J. Garvey is for sale, but Garvey's family is trying to halt it.
Posted: May 18, 2014

Descendants of the family of Msgr. Patrick Garvey, once rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, are challenging the seminary's decision to sell Thomas Eakins' 1902 portrait of Garvey, arguing that the seminary does not own it.

Robert E. Goldman, a former federal prosecutor who is aiding the descendants, said the portrait, painted during Eakins' visits to the City Avenue seminary at the turn of the 20th century, was put in the seminary's hands for exhibition, not sale.

"The painting is not owned by the archdiocese, and they have no right to sell it," Goldman said. "The sale should be stopped." He added that if the sale, handled by Christie's, goes forward, "a purchaser cannot obtain good title."

Archdiocesan spokesman Ken Gavin said the seminary's position was "unwavering." The portrait was given to the seminary by Garvey's nephew the Rev. Patrick McGinnis, he said in an e-mail, adding, "No contrary evidence has ever been presented."

Goldman, who has worked with the FBI's art-crime unit and is now in private practice in Bucks County, said the family was prepared to take legal action to block the sale.

It is not, he said, interested in selling the painting. Family members want it displayed appropriately to honor Garvey, if not at the seminary, then at some similar institution.

At least 40 members of the Garvey family have become priests in Philadelphia and Europe, Goldman said. Garvey priests ministered to soldiers at Gettysburg and townsfolk after the Johnstown flood. They ministered to St. Katharine Drexel as a young woman and founded Philadelphia parishes and schools, he added.

The Garvey portrait is one of a half-dozen Eakins portraits displayed at the seminary for many years, the fruits of a uniquely Philadelphia story.

Eakins, who was probably agnostic, and his friend, Samuel Murray, a devout Catholic, took Sunday bicycle rides to the seminary, where they talked with faculty and students. Eakins, who always enjoyed robust intellects, became close friends with several faculty members, asked them to pose, then gave them the portraits.

Eakins "painted such portraits . . . simply out of love of his art, and not because his sitters requested him to paint portraits," one of his subjects, Msgr. Hugh Henry, wrote to Eakins scholar Lloyd Goodrich in 1930. "He asked me to sit for him, offered me the completed work as a gift."

In the case of Garvey, the rector believed the portrait made him look harsh and he hid it under his bed. After his 1908 death, it disappeared. Eakins himself searched for it, and wrote a friend: "I hope the painting has been found and hung in the seminary. . . . I cared much for Dr. Garvey and feel his loss."

Goldman says the painting was held by various family members, lastly McGinnis, pastor of St. Michael's Church on the 1400 block of North Second Street. After his death in 1959, it was found in a closet and ended up at the seminary.

Last year, the financially strapped seminary announced plans to sell or lease 45 campus acres and sell the Eakins works, plus a 1976 portrait of Archbishop Jean Jadot by Alice Neel and an undated painting of St. Peter's Cathedral by Colin Campbell Cooper.

Christie's, selling the Eakins portraits privately, has declined to put a price tag on them, although Eakins portraits in recent years have sold in the low to mid-six figures at most.

Bishop Timothy Senior, the current rector, has said the seminary is not a museum and does not have the luxury of caring for valuable, delicate art. Eakins scholars are disturbed, noting that the multiple connections the works have to the seminary and the region will be broken if the paintings are sold.


ssalisbury@phillynews.com

215-854-5594

@SPSalisbury

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