Dispute Over Ballet Russe Archives Pits University Against Late Professor

Classic Arts News   Dispute Over Ballet Russe Archives Pits University Against Late Professor
Ownership of a trove of archival material from the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo is in dispute, the Indianapolis Star reports.

Butler University claims that the archives—which include 1,000 costumes, 40 complete sest backdrops (including pieces designed by Henri Matisse and painted by Salvador Dali), and music manuscripts belonging to the touring company—is the property of the university.

The archives have not been appraised, but the value is said to be in the millions of dollars.

Liene Dindonis claims to have inherited the archives from an estate that originally belonged to George Verdak, co-founder of the Indianapolis Ballet Theatre, who was head of the dance department at Butler and once danced with the Ballet Russe.

Verdak acquired the archives in the 1970s from the New York-based Ballet Foundation. The archives were kept at the university, and used from time to time in ballet productions there. When Verdak left Butler in 1978 for the Indianapolis Ballet Theatre, a university dean requested in writing that the archives be given back. Verdak assured the university that property belonging to the university had been returned.

After Verdak's death, the university learned that pieces possibly belonging to the archives were being sold by art dealers. A court order was obtained to inspect Verdak's own collection; Butler now claims that Verdak did not return all the archival pieces belonging to the university, and that his assurances that he did so were, according to court records, "false and fraudulent, and were intended to conceal the fact that he had misappropriated property belonging to Butler."

Philip Whistler, an attorney for the university, said, "All that Butler is trying to do is get back its property."

Dindonis says that the objects belong to Verdak, and that she wouldn't have challenged the university's claim "if it wasn't for their greed and aggressiveness." Her lawyers cite a May 1971 letter from the Ballet Foundation that reads, "In answer to your question about the ownership of the Ballet Russe properties, it is safe to say the material is entirely yours."

Whistler says that Verdak did not list the archives in his will or estate tax return, leading to the assumption that he did not consider them his own.

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