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Men of the Docks, George Bellows, 1912 — Maier Museum

The fight over whether Randolph College in Lynchburg, Virginia should be allowed to sell four paintings from its Maier Museum — a bad idea — has started to seem like one of those silent movie cliff hangers. Today’s episode ends with a victory for opponents of the sale.

First the backstory. The paintings are scheduled to be auctioned at Christie’s in New York City on two dates, Nov. 19 and 29, though today’s court action puts the sale in doubt. The four canvases include George Bellows’ Men of the Docks, which has a pre-sale estimate of $25 to $35 million — serious money. A few weeks ago a group dedicated to keeping the paintings at the Maier got Lynchburg Circuit Court Judge Leyburn Mosby, Jr. to grant an injunction against the sale. But Judge Mosby also wanted the sale opponents to post a $10 million bond, which wasn’t exactly the kind of money they had lying around. The logic behind the high bond was that the art market appears to be cooling off, which means that any delay in the sale, should it ultimately be approved, could mean that Randolph College gets lower prices for its paintings. The college would then be compensated for its losses from the bond money.

Right after Mosby issued his injunction, Randolph sought an expedited appeal with the Virginia Supreme Court. This afternoon it was that court that had its say. Not only did it refuse to lift the injunction, the court lowered the bond to $1 million, which the opponents can attempt to cover through something called a “surety bond”, a more feasible proposition at the $1 million level.

For now the opponents are elated. But this cliff hanger isn’t over yet.