Florence Berghausen wants her paintings back.
Her pennies paid for them.
But the artworks were sold, and no one bothered to tell her.
"My money - and the money of thousands of other kids just like me - bought those paintings for the Cincinnati Public Schools," she says.
When the 81-year-old Westwood resident learned a number of paintings in the district's art collection were sold - some at bargain prices being investigated by the FBI - she could barely contain her contempt for the bureaucrats who sold her art.
"I'm outraged," she said. "I'm furious. I wouldn't want to be in the same room with those people."
Seventy-one years ago, Florence was a student at Riverside Elementary. Every Monday, she went room to room collecting pennies for the school's art fund.
Florence remembers holding her cigar box as she walked the long, dark halls.
She knocked on each classroom door. The teacher welcomed her by name. "I was so honored."
Florence collected students' pennies and wrote the amount in her notebook.
Her classmates "were always grinning, so thrilled to be buying a painting for our school with their pennies."
A penny went a lot farther in 1926. It had to. Florence and her sister were so poor they could not afford the school's complete 10-cent lunch. Each day they could spend only two pennies apiece. Florence bought mashed potatoes. Her sister bought dessert. They shared.
On Mondays, their mother gave them five extra pennies. "Those were for the paintings," Florence says.
Today, Florence would be glad to pay the going rate for some of the paintings sold from the schoolkids' collection. "Just to reminisce over. Or will it to my kids."
But she didn't have the chance.
"They sold it in secret. Tried to push it under the rug. How low can you get?"
Paintings purchased decades ago with kids' pennies are now worth millions.
Jay Karp, Cincinnati auctioneer and art appraiser, examined the collection in 1983. At the time, he put its value at $1 million. Today, he says, "it's worth at least $2 million, maybe $4 million." The board's official appraisal values the collection at $1.3 million.
So who owns these valuable works? The kids or the board?
Ask Georgie Ann Daub-Grosse, an art teacher at Sands Montessori, near the collection's current home in the Museum Center at Union Terminal.
She's the author of a curriculum catalog of the collection. She also wrote a new instruction kit to help teachers guide students through the exhibit. Both tools - the first in the collection's history - will be in every school by August.
"Making Pictographs" - a scene of a boy drawing on a wall with his mother's approval - is her favorite. As a Hughes High School student, she used to see the painting every day on the wall outside the girls counselor's office.
When Georgie Ann takes a class to see the collection, she always tells her students: "You are patrons of the arts."
They look at her in disbelief.
"You own a collection of paintings," she says, "and they are beautiful."
I agree. Those paintings are a gift from one generation to another. From Florence Berghausen to Georgie Ann Daub-Grosse, from the students of today to their children's classmates of tomorrow. They are more than just pretty pictures hanging on a wall. They are memories in the heart.
If they must be sold off to prune the collection or buy more important works, then do it with dignity. At least give them the same treatment that would accompany the sale of old school desks. Sell them in public to the highest bidder.
These paintings should be treated with respect. They were bought with pennies. But they were purchased with pride.
TV EXEC BOUGHT CPS PAINTING July 3, 1997
SCHOOL CONSULTANT ON ART 'A DEALER WITHOUT A GALLERY' July 3, 1997
ARTWORK SHOT UP 455% IN RESALE July 2, 1997
ART COLLECTION KEPT IN HALLWAY July 2, 1997
SCHOOL REDRAWS RULES ON ART SALE July 1, 1997
FBI LOOKS AT SCHOOL ART DEALS June 29, 1997
Cliff Radel's column appears in The Enquirer Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Available to speak to groups. Tips and comments most welcome. Call 768-8379 or fax at 768-8340.