Old Economy Village in battle over Chinese artifacts

| Monday, Jan. 7, 2013, 11:56 p.m.

Two men claim to be the rightful owners of 19th-century paintings and books about China housed at Old Economy Village since 1963, and they want the artwork back, saying family members asked for its return 30 years ago.

William Kardos, 78, a geologist from Texas working to establish his claim through his late wife, said he has spent eight years trying to get the museum to return the items to him and his nephew, Bruce Cherry of New York City. He said his late wife, Nancy Peters Kardos, asked for the artwork in 1983.

“I have a 4-inch binder full of papers and letters related to the claim. They always have something else that they need. I think the museum would like to retain them,” said Kardos of Houston.

The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, which operates Old Economy Village, says it must be certain it's giving the collection to the rightful owner.

“We are stewards of these artworks,” said Howard Pollman, a spokesman for the commission.

The museum's somewhat unusual and casual acquisition of the paintings and books complicated Kardos' bid to get them back, the parties say.

Joseph Spratt, a Beaver lawyer representing Kardos and Cherry, said he intends to file a motion this week in Beaver County court to get the Social Security number and death certificate of Eunice Peters, the mother of Kardos' wife and the last person to hold the artwork before it arrived at the museum 50 years ago.

Spratt said he is gathering information so that he can ask a judge to reopen Eunice Peters' estate.

The collection came to Western Pennsylvania during a decades-long journey.

Nancy Peters Kardos and Joyce Cherry were great-granddaughters of John R. Peters Jr., an engineer who went on an 1843 trade mission to China with Caleb Cushing, an American diplomat who was a congressman from Massachusetts and attorney general under President Franklin Pierce.

John Peters brought back 800 Chinese art objects that he exhibited in a museum he founded in Boston. It folded within two years of its founding.

Peters, who died in 1900, sold the bulk of his collection to P.T. Barnum, and a fire destroyed it in 1865.

Eleven paintings and 17 books remained with the family, and Eunice Peters inherited them.

The paintings and books became the property of Nancy Peters Kardos and Joyce Cherry in 1963 when their mother died, Kardos said. They didn't know what to do with them and a neighbor, the late Harvey Moore, an Aliquippa businessman, encouraged them to loan the paintings and books to Old Economy. Because Moore arranged the donation, his involvement apparently adds to confusion about who owned the artwork, Kardos and museum officials said.

The museum displayed the paintings — the last time was in the 1980s — stored them and restored some of them, said Sarah Buffington, Old Economy's curator.

Founded in the early 19th century by Germans fleeing religious persecution, Old Economy is not the usual venue for Chinese art. According to Pollman, the museum would not accept such a donation today.

“They do not relate to the story being told at Old Economy,” he said.

Correspondence written by Nancy Kardos in 1988 indicates the museum wanted to keep the artworks and that officials there believed Moore owned them.

Dewey Blanton, spokesman for the American Alliance of Museums in Washington, consulted the “National Standards and Best Practices for U.S. Museums,” published in 2009, to find out whether it established guidelines for such situations.

“There is nothing here that relates directly to the issue at hand,” he said.

One problem in determining ownership of the artwork is that Eunice Peters' will did not specify who should inherit them, Spratt said.

“It's gone slowly. You are going back two generations. The goal is to get the artifacts,” he said.

Kardos supplied a photocopy of a January 2011 handwritten letter signed by Ruth Ann Duff, Moore's daughter. It states the paintings belonged to George Peters and that his heirs should receive them.

The commission declined comment on the letter.

Rick Wills is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7944 or at rwills@tribweb.com.

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