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For Sale: Some of the Most Important Paintings in Dallas Times Herald (And Dallas) History

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Speaking of fine art ...

Tuesday morning, our editorial assistant got the phone call. The voice on the other end of the line whispered: Someone has just brought to Consignment Heaven dozens of pieces taken out of the old Dallas Times Herald, including publishers' portraits and exec-office furniture. Elizabeth passed on the message. Thought I might be interested. Well, yeah.

A little before 3 yesterday I headed to the Henderson Avenue antique store. There, I saw what you see above and will find after the jump -- half a dozen paintings of Times Herald editors and publishers, among them such familiar names as Tom Gooch, for whom the school is named, and James F. Chambers Jr., who ran the place in the 1960s. All were painted by legendary Dallas portraitist Dmitri Vail, whose portrait of Lyndon Johnson hangs in his presidential museum in Austin. They're all priced at $495 each.

There was also an enormous, gloriously framed photo of Edwin J. Kiest, who owned the Times Herald from the late 1800s till his death in '41 and whose vast contributions to the city live on well after the paper's demise on December 7, 1991. Its price tag: a mere $195. All the paintings and photos once hung in the editorial hallway, between the news-and-sports and arts-and-features departments. Each one has a plaque noting who the person is, what their title was and how long they held it.

There were other pieces of art as well: a painting of Reunion Arena with the Times Herald's logo on the scoreboard; a printing-press still life; a lamp made from an old abacus; and other end tables and desks once used by the paper's higher-ups. Several others have already been sold, including the old bronze directory once perched in the paper's lobby. And others shoppers have expressed interest in the paintings ... pardon, the frames.

Brant Laird, the appraiser at Consignment Heaven, told me they came from The Dallas Morning News's warehouse in South Dallas. He said they'd been brought in a few days ago by none other than poet, artist and archivist Judith Segura, the now-retired Belo historian who wrote the book Belo: From Newspapers to New Media. And so I called her and asked how they ended up in Consignment Heaven almost 19 years to the day after the shuttering of the Dallas Times Herald.

According to Segura, when The Dallas Morning News bought (for $55 million) and closed the Times Herald on December 8, 1991, A.H. Belo Corp. President and CEO Robert Decherd called her and said, "I want you to retrieve every bit of historical material you can find in the Dallas Times Herald building and preserve it for posterity." She says she spent "every day for the next two weeks in one of the saddest operations of my life, just looking for any kind of historical document, file, artwork and historical material about the company" she could find. But there wasn't much, she says, suggesting that the L.A.-based Times Mirror Company, which bought the paper in 1969, tossed out much of what was important pre-dating its ownership.

She says the photo archives had been "ransacked" by photographers on their way out the door that final day of operations. Which is true: Just last week I was talking to a former Times Herald shooter about what had become of the archives, and he said they took their significant files lest they wind up in the hands of The News. Some writers did the same thing upon hearing of the paper's purchase.

What Segura did find, she says, was tagged and moved to "a huge room in the Belo building," where she and another historian tagged and cataloged the significant editorial pieces that, she says, were later sent to the DeGolyer Library at SMU, home of the Belo archives. (DeGolyer officials, however, told me yesterday the Times Herald archives reside at UT-Arlington. Besides, says Cynthia Franco, DeGolyer's cataloging and reference librarian, "We don't collect museum pieces, we collect papers." But Cathleen Spitzenberger at UTA says that's not the case either. And the Dallas Public Library only has old Times Heralds on microfiche.)

But when it came to "the three-dimensional objects," Segura says, they were sorted and stored in "climate-controlled storage, the thinking being that some day there would be a museum" devoted to local newspapers. "But, of course, the media world turned upside-down, and there probably won't be a museum of any kind," she says. When I suggested the Newseum in Washington, D.C. -- where visitors are greeted by an actual KXAS-Channel 5 traffic copter suspended from the ceiling -- she says, "Well, that's a national museum, that's another animal."

The paintings, she says, have been in storage for the last 19 years, and "with the need to be really careful about every dollar spent, the company -- Belo Corp. and The Dallas Morning News and A.H. Belo -- have been looking at everything, including what they had in storage and what to keep and use. They needed to figure out how not to pay storage."

At which point the subject of the portraits came up. Segura says she want to Heritage Auction Galleries and asked their art-history experts about their importance. She says she was told they were important for several reasons: They were of "actual people," and they'd been painted by Vail. But more than anything, Segura says, she thought the families of the men in the paintings would want them. But "I didn't have the resoureces or the knowledge of who these people might be to help find the right descendants," says Segura, who reminds that she's long been retired.

She says local libraries and museums had no interest in the pieces: "DeGolyer would simply keep them wrapped in plastic and in storage," she says. The Dallas Public Library, she says, also had no space to store or display them. But one librarian in the Texas/Dallas History & Archives Division to whom I spoke yesterday this was the first time she'd heard of the paintings being available -- "though," she added, "that's something that would take place higher up" the administrative food chain. Efforts to reach Corrine Hill, Interim Director of Libraries, have proved unsuccessful, but her assistant, Michael Martinez, says he also "hasn't heard of this." He says he's looking into it and promises to have Hill return our call.

Update: "We don't turn anything down," says Hill, who adds that the library has accepted donations "far less historic" than the Vail portraits. "That's something we wouldn't even think about. We wouldn't turn down anything like that." She had to go -- Hill said she needed to make some follow-up calls.

Her options spent, Segura says, she opted to sell them at Consignment Heaven on the off chance someone might recognize the paintings or their importance.

"I showed them to Brant Laird, and he said he felt it was quite do-able -- to put these things from the Dallas Times Herald into his consignment shop and make them available to people who used to work their, to their descendants and to people who had fondness and good memories of the Dallas Times Herald. There's no other value to them except as memorabilia."

While that's arguable, Laird says he has had interest in the paintings. Why, just a couple of days ago, he says, a woman came into the shop and said she'd like to buy all six -- for the frames, which, Laird says, are worth at least the $500 asking price for the paintings. The woman said she's like to use the frames for paintings of her grandchildren. She told Laird she intended to toss the Vail paintings.

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