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Ruling with some reluctance in a decades-old controversy over the ownership of a painting by the Hudson River School artist Jasper Francis Cropsey, a Westchester County, N.Y., Supreme Court justice has concluded that the Hastings-on-Hudson School District is the work’s rightful owner. Justice John P. DiBlasi rejected claims on the painting by the Village of Hastings-on-Hudson and the Hastings Historical Society, which argued that the work, “View at Hastings-on-Hudson,” should remain in the village to be viewed by its residents and visitors. While remarking on the emotional appeal of the position of the village and historical society, DiBlasi found that the challenges to the school district’s ownership of the painting were based on inadmissible hearsay evidence. “In this case, unfortunately, the passage of time has resulted in a loss of eyewitnesses and a dearth of relevant documentary proof,” DiBlasi wrote in Hudson River Museum of Westchester v. Union Free School District No. 4 of the Town of Greenburgh, 12591/99. “Nevertheless, applying the controlling law, the court has determined that the competent available evidence, albeit minimal in quantity . . . requires that the painting be returned to the district without any restriction upon its future.” The decision will be published on Thursday. Executed in about 1885, the three-and-a-half by six-foot painting depicts the idyllic view of the Hudson from the village. Bought at auction by village resident Sidney Thursby in 1906, the work remained in the Thursby family’s possession until 1946, when it was delivered to the board of education of the district under conditions that are now in dispute. While no witnesses exist who can testify first-hand to the circumstances of the transfer, the school district claims that the painting was acquired around 1946 by Max Rustemeyer and that the board accepted the work from Rustemeyer as a gift in May 1946. In contrast, the village and historical society argue that Thursby simply allowed Rustemeyer to keep the painting temporarily, and that Thursby donated it to the board to hold as a trustee for the residents of the village. “View at Hastings-on-Hudson” eventually ended up in storage in the custodian’s office at a village school. Rediscovered in the mid-1960s, the painting was appraised at $45,000 to $50,000, and a loan was arranged with the Hudson River Museum, where it was placed on display. $400,000 APPRAISAL Controversy flared in 1987, when the painting was appraised at $400,000 and the school district considered selling it to raise money to erase a budget deficit. The historical society and village residents filed a notice of claim to oppose the move, but the district decided not to sell the work, and no suit was ever filed. But in July 1999, the school district demanded that the museum return the painting. The museum refused, noting the dispute over the ownership of the piece, and filed suit. The district countersued, seeking a declaratory judgment upholding its ownership and directing the painting be returned to it. In October 1999, Justice DiBlasi found that the museum could continue to display the painting, noting the likelihood that the residents of the village might never see it again after the conclusion of the litigation. But he ordered the museum to indemnify the district for insurance premiums during the time it remained on display. The museum was also severed from the lawsuit, as the other parties agreed that it was a mere stakeholder for their interests. After discovery was completed, the district moved for summary judgment, arguing that it alone owns the painting. In opposition, the village and historical society argued that Thursby had intended the district to hold the painting in trust for the village and its residents. HEARSAY EVIDENCE On the evidence, DiBlasi found that the testimony of witnesses offered by the village and historical society to establish the notion of the trust was pure hearsay. The judge likewise rejected as hearsay newspaper articles proffered by both sides on the ownership issue. DiBlasi also declared inadmissible as hearsay letters written by the Thursby family about the painting, notwithstanding the village’s and the society’s arguments that they established Thursby’s donative intent. As for the district’s motion for summary judgment, DiBlasi found that it had indeed satisfied its burden of showing ownership, primarily through minutes from a 1946 board of education meeting that showed that Rustemeyer delivered the painting and intended to irrevocably transfer ownership rights to the board. And DiBlasi reiterated his finding that the only evidence of the trust theory comes from articles and letters that are clearly inadmissible, notwithstanding the relaxed rules for a party opposing summary judgment. “This is not a situation where some hearsay evidence is offered, together with a minimal amount of competent proof, in opposition to a summary judgment motion,” the judge wrote. “To the contrary, all of the relevant evidence relied upon by the Village/Society would be excluded at trial.” Finally, for purposes of completing the record for appellate review, DiBlasi found that the school district also had satisfied ownership under its alternate theory of adverse possession — that is, through open possession of the property for a long enough period to bar an action for recovery by the real owner. Eric L. Gordon, of Kean & Beane in White Plains, N.Y., represented the district. Brian D. Murphy and Marianne Stecich, of Tarrytown, N.Y.’s Murphy Stecich & Powell, represented the village. Paul S. Edelman, of Manhattan’s Kreindler & Kreindler, represented the historical society.

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