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Civil war over Williamsport print

April 19, 2005|by ANDREW SCHOTZ

andrews@herald-mail.com

When John W. Slayman left office last month, voted out as mayor, a print depicting a Civil War scene left Town Hall with him.

Now, a tug of war is pitting Slayman, who says the print is his, against those who think it doesn't belong to him.

Three prints are at issue - one from Town Hall, one Slayman has kept at home for many years and one hanging at Williamsport Memorial Library. By the artist's estimate, the three pieces might be worth a total of about $7,500.

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Slayman said all three belong to him. Now that he has two, he's fighting to get the third.

The prints - actually "artist proofs" - are of a painting called "Williamsport Crossing," a Civil War scene of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, on horseback, leading about 65,000 soldiers toward Gettysburg.

In 1993, artist John Paul Strain came to Hagerstown to donate three proofs to kick off the release of the prints.

On Thursday, Strain remembered giving two to the town, to hang publicly, so local people could relish a local Civil War scene. The third proof was for Slayman for his support.

"There would be no reason for me to give three proofs to the mayor for any particular reason," Strain said during a phone interview from his home in Fort Worth, Texas.

But Slayman said Lester Benjamin Green, who co-owned Benjamin Art Gallery in Hagerstown at the time, asked Slayman to issue a press release about the painting.

Slayman said Green asked, before Strain arrived, if the mayor wanted anything in return and Slayman took him up on the offer.

"I wanted three pictures because I have three kids," Slayman said Thursday. "I wanted it to be a family thing."

Slayman has two daughters. His son, Warren, was shot and killed in 1994.

Slayman's confirmation of the verbal deal is lost to time; Green died in 1993.

Slayman said Green's wife, Lottie, vowed to uphold her late husband's agreement. But on Friday, Lottie Green disputed that.

"I don't remember my husband ever saying that," she said.

Lottie Green said her recollection is that the proofs were for the town to keep.

Two sources of information back up Lottie Green's and Strain's accounts.

On the frame of each proof, a plaque reads, "Presented to The Town of Williamsport, MD by John p. Strain."

Slayman said he figured Lottie Green mistakenly considered him "the town." He said he didn't want to bother her at the time by telling her the plaques didn't belong on the frames.

Minutes of the Sept. 13, 1993, town council meeting say, "A print of a Civil War painting will be presented to the Town of Williamsport on Friday, September 17, 1993 at 10:00 a.m."

However, the minutes go on to identify the gallery, not Strain, as the donor.

More than sentimental value is at stake.

On art gallery Web sites, prints of "Williamsport Crossing" are priced at around $900 to $1,000 each. One was priced at $1,250, on sale.

Strain said he thinks the current value for the prints is more like $1,500. Artist proofs, he said, could be worth about $2,500 apiece.

There were 950 limited-edition prints and 40 artist proofs. Strain said the only difference is how he signed them.

Slayman said that after his son died, the proofs were far from his mind. But as he packed his belongings at Town Hall after the election, he noticed the proof on the wall. He asked Town Supervisor Jeff Long to take it to his house, which Long did.

Slayman also asked Long to retrieve the proof at the library. But James G. McCleaf II, who defeated Slayman and replaced him as mayor, told Long to wait before taking anything from the library.

The library board is scheduled to discuss Slayman's claim for the third proof at a regularly scheduled meeting on Tuesday at 7 p.m.

Board President C. Richard Grimm said he's not sure what will happen since Slayman's account doesn't match the plaque.

Slayman said that if the board tells him no, he will consider a lawsuit. He accused his political opponents of instigating the dispute.

McCleaf denied that. He hopes the issue is resolved soon.

"I don't want any hard feelings between me and John," he said.

The town's ethics policy says town officials and employees can't "Solicit any gift or accept gifts of greater than Twenty-five ($25.00) Dollars in value," but only if the donor "has or is negotiating a contract with the Town, or is regulated by their agency" - which seemingly wouldn't apply to Strain, the artist.

Although not required by the statute, if Slayman formally had reported receiving a gift at the time, it might have clarified the situation, McCleaf said.

Strain said "Williamsport Crossing" prints were worth about $165 in 1993 and artist proofs might have been worth about $265.

Now, McCleaf thinks Slayman has the burden to prove the art is his.

Otherwise, Slayman should donate the proofs to the town, he said.

"It would be a good gesture on his part," McCleaf said. "It would just add closure. Evidently, (the situation is) festering and getting worse."

Strain said he's "a little disappointed" Slayman took the second proof and is seeking the third. Strain wants them to stay public.

But Slayman said the proofs are a proud part of his legacy, which he wants to share with his children before he dies.

"That's the only thing anyone has given me (as mayor), anything of that magnitude," he said.

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