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Artwork: Authenticity of Collection Debated

Spartanburg Herald Journal
February 16, 2003
By LINDA CONLEY AND SUELLEN E. DEAN
Staff Writers

There's something mysterious and haunting about the collection of West African art on exhibit this month at the Spartanburg County Museum of Art.

And the mystery has nothing to do with how researchers believe the pieces were used - to hunt, to connect with the spirit world or to ward - off evil and cleanse souls.

The artwork is on loan from Limestone College, which received the collection in 1985 from Beverly Monroe, a 1956 Limestone graduate, and Roger de la Burde, her lover of 12 years. They met in 1979 while working together at Phillip Morris in Richmond, Va.

It is believed that the pieces came from Nigeria, Mali, Ghana and the Ivory Coast more than 50 years ago. Burde told people that his father collected the art in expeditions in 1912-13, 1917 and 1947.

It that isn't true.

The authenticity of Burde's art collections has been debated because of his tales of how he acquired the pieces. And at the time of his death in 1992, he had been investigated for art fraud.

Monroe is in the center of the controversy because she has spent seven years of the past 11 in prison for Burde's death. A federal judge released her a year ago, saying police and prosecutors mishandled the case. The state of Virginia is appealing.

The state's evidence says she did it. The defense's evidence says she is innocent and that Burde committed suicide.

But all of this doesn't appear to be an issue at Limestone. Despite statements that have been made over the past 10 years by experts and those who knew Burde refuting some of the information he told about his collection, Limestone believes in its authenticity.

" The collection is documented and we are satisfied that it is authentic," said Andy Cox, chairman of the Limestone art department. "Questions always come up about the authenticity of art collections, but we haven't seen anything contrary about this one."

Cox said it was up to Burde, for tax . purposes, to have the pieces appraised and documented before donating them. He also said lawyers examined the paperwork and it was accepted by the state. "The art collection has tangible pieces that can be used in our classrooms and we are very appreciative that we have the collection," Cox said.

Monroe said she knew that Burde made up stories about his father and the expeditions, but knows that the art is good. She said Burde bought many of the pieces in the 1960s.

" It's absolutely a genuine African collection," Monroe said. "There are some wonderful objects."

Though it has been almost 20 years since Burde and Monroe donated the collection to Limestone, Monroe still remembers some of the details. She said some of Burde's African art was stored in his garage, basement and attic. She encouraged him to organize it.

" It wasn't the quality of the art. We tried to give them a cross-section of . objects for teaching purposes. The art is what it is," she said.

An art gallery owner in Richmond, Va., was surprised to learn that her name and gallery are associated with information detailing the pieces for Spartanburg's exhibit.

Ann Gray said she met with Burde on several occasions to appraise his art, and on one occasion he became angry because he thought some it was worth more than her appraised value. She said some pieces were good and appeared to have historical value, and some were imported works done for the tourist industry.

Research indicates that Burde's story about his father collecting African art seems to be another tale that he made up -like his stories about being a Polish count. His fantasies were unveiled after an associate curator at the Metropolitan Art Museum in New York researched a he published a story about some of his pieces in African Art magazine in Los Angeles. Susan Vogel said she discovered that some of the art he claimed his family had owned in the early 1900s was still in Nigeria 5O years later. She said she confronted Burde and he admitted playing with the facts.

Cox is aware of the sensational case, which has made headlines over the. past decade. But he doesn't want the Burde-Monroe collection, as it is called, to become tarnished.

" I would hate to see this collection get a negative image because of the case."

Burde also made donations to several other colleges, including Radford University in Virginia, where his daughter attended.

Radford University received 72 pieces, contemporary and African. Since his death, some pieces have been removed from the collection but the college displays the other pieces.

" During the trial there was a claim that some of the pieces were pot authentic," said Radford spokeswoman Debbie Brown. "Some of the pieces were pulled and we have never displayed them again."

Steve Arbury, director of the Radford Art Museum, said the African art makes up about 30 pieces of their art collection, which contains about 1,200, pieces.

" We haven't done any serious research and we don't make any claims about what century the work came from," Arbury said. "There is no question that it is African art."

Wofford's librarian, Oakley Coburn, said when he displayed the pieces the month before Burde's death, the collection appeared authentic.

" To my knowledge there was nothing that suggested that it wasn't," Coburn said. "African art is difficult. It is hard to say that a piece is 50 years old or 150 years old."

Coburn said colleges never know the real value of such donations unless they have a third party appraise its value. "I would like to know who owned the collection. I would like to authenticate it. But I don't think Limestone has the ability to do that. I think it would be hard to fake some of the bronze pieces where you see the clay body filling the inside and partly broken off."

Even if the pieces look like they were used by ancient tribes in Africa: the mystery that surrounds Burde's death now leaves a hint of mystery around the art. "There's a big problem because it has damaged the reality or reputation of the collection. And Limestone doesn't need that to fall on them," Coburn said.