A legal battle has erupted over who owns 17 drawings by Martin Ramirez, whose artworks, created while he lived in California state mental institutions until his death in 1963, now fetch six-figure sums.
Is Maureen Hammond, a widowed, retired schoolteacher living in Needles, Calif., a multimillion-dollar art thief who tried to dispose of ill-gotten gains through a Sotheby's auction? Or was Hammond, 69, the appreciative and legitimate recipient of a gift of Ramirez's drawings from a psychologist who befriended the artist and was the first person to arrange for their display during the 1950s?
The case could turn on whether Ramirez, who came to the U.S. from Mexico in 1925 seeking work and was institutionalized in 1931, was competent under California law and therefore capable of making gifts of his work to his psychologist friend, Tarmo Pasto, an art therapy researcher who died in 1986.
Ramirez, according to a suit filed by his heirs Monday in U.S. District Court in New York, was classified at various times as "insane" and suffering from "schizophrenic reaction, catatonic type."
His estate, headed by two of his grandchildren living in Southern California, wants Hammond to turn over the drawings or pay at least $3 million for them.
Beating the heirs to the punch, Hammond sued Friday in Los Angeles Superior Court, seeking legal affirmation that she owns the drawings.
In a phone interview Monday, Hammond said she was pursuing her master's in art therapy at California State University, Los Angeles, in 1961 when she contacted Pasto. He sent her works by people he'd studied and helped, including the colored pencil drawings by Ramirez.
She said she often used them as teaching materials in art and special education classes during a 37-year career.
Now, Hammond said, her daughter needs an eye operation, and selling the drawings is her best option.
New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl has ranked Ramirez with Chicagoan Henry Darger and the Swiss Adolf Wolfli as "one of the Big Three of twentieth-century outsiders."
The suit by Ramirez's heirs, Martin Ramirez Salinas and Maria de Jesus Reyes Ramirez Miller, depicts their grandfather as an exploited victim of Pasto. It says Pasto treated the artist, making it illegal to accept gifts from him.
Hammond's attorneys, Rick Richmond and Brent Caslin, said that California court rulings suggest that terms such as "insanity" and "incompetence" in committal forms were general terms during the early 1900s, not clinical ones. The involuntary commitment Ramirez underwent "has no bearing on his ability or mental capacity to make gifts," Richmond said. Pasto, he added, worked with Ramirez as a researcher and was not bound by prohibitions against receiving gifts from patients.
Eric Lieberman, an attorney for the Ramirez estate, said Tuesday that it was clear that the artist was ruled insane when he was committed to a state hospital.