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by Sharon Rondeau

Untitled drawing of an Idaho farmyard by James Charles Castle (1899-1977)

(Mar. 6, 2013) — An Idaho homeowner has had a judgment issued against her after she sold numerous pieces of artwork found in the house after purchasing the house and four land lots from the artist’s niece in 1997.

The creator of the artwork is James Castle, who was not well-known during his lifetime but in whom greater interest has arisen over the last decade.  Mr. Castle was deaf, never married, and was known to have hidden his work inside walls and other places in the family home, which sisters Jeannie and Susan Schmidt bought as a renovation project in 1997.

Castle was born in 1899 and died in 1977.  He has his own Wikipedia page and Facebook page; a movie has been made about his life, and an exhibition of his work was on display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art from October 2008 to January 2009.  His creations have been displayed in other major cities and are now internationally-recognized.

Castle created many smaller pieces of art, with as many as 20,000 known items in the formal collection.  The materials he used were homemade and non-traditional but said to have presented “an astonishingly varied sense of light and shade in each work with powerful lines and brilliantly nuanced textures that enliven the surface.”

It has been reported that Castle was autistic and could not communicate in traditional ways but used art to reflect his awareness of his rural Idaho farmhouse and small town.  Castle’s parents ran the local post office, and he often used bulk mailers, stamps and other printed items in his artwork.

Whether or not Castle was a savant or genius is an open question.  Although Castle was expelled as a boy from the Idaho School for the Deaf and Blind in 1910, a collection of his work is now on permanent display at the Boise Art Museum.

A journalist at The Idaho Statesman reported that the family disposed of some of James Castle’s art before his work reached national and international acclaim.

Castle died without a will, and his artwork was awarded to his sister, Agnes Wade, as his only heir.  Wade passed away in 1993, and her eldest child, Geraldine Garrow, became executor of her estate.  According to court documents, Garrow and her siblings entered into a partnership with Jacqueline Crist, an art dealer, to “sell and market the art of James Castle owned by the estate” in 1996.  A Statement of the lawsuit contends that the partnership “made millions” for its members.  Page 2 of the Statement reads, in part:

Ms. Garrow decided to sell the house and listed it on the market (Ex 11). It was listed as a home that needed extensive repairs (Ex 11). Before the house was sold, the family looked for anything that might have been left in the house. (O page 10) They walked through the house, which comprised their search. (Tr 381 line 6-9) The house was empty and they looked in the cupboards (Tr 381 line 6-9). There was no evidence of any further search beyond walking through and looking in the cupboards. They did not look in the attic area of the house, an area James Castle was known to have stored his art (O page 2, 3).

[Editor’s Note:  The full Statement can be read here:  Statement of Castle Case ]

Schmidt told The Post & Email that she had been friends with Gail Johnson, one of Wade’s children, and her husband, as they were neighbors and grew up together.  It was understood when she and her sister bought the house that “what she found she could keep.”

After purchasing the property, the Schmidt sisters began remodeling the house.  For years, only one painting by Castle was found and given in a goodwill gesture to the husband of one of the partnership members in 2007.  Beginning in 2005, more pieces of Castle’s work were found and maintained safely by the Schmidt sisters.  “We found tons of it,” Jeannie Schmidt told The Post & Email.  “The back of my truck was filled…the paper he had used, marbles, glass chunks that he used….there was so much stuff.”

Schmidt told The Post & Email about an unusual find made which introduced her to the workings of the partnership:

“In 2005, we were redoing the service porch, and there is a cold room which they used for refrigeration before they had refrigerators.  The insulation above that was wood shavings which goes up in the ceiling above the cold room.  We found where people would put their kids up there for punishment – to go up there and start pulling the wood shavings out – and we found a little box tied with a string, some fabric and some bones.  A little box in it contained a little glass bottle, two little bundles in paper-bag material which contained little pieces of glass inside, a couple of old labels, a jar lid, and two little wood carvings.  I took that to Gail [Johnson, one of the nieces in the partnership] and showed her, and I was all excited about it, as those were the only two wood carvings anyone had found.  The carpet-installation business gets really slow around Christmas, so I asked Gail if she would hook me up with Jackie Crist so she could sell them for me because I needed some money for Christmas.  So she brought Jackie over to the house and we sat and talked, and she said, “Sure, I’ll sell it.”  We didn’t hear from her for months and months and months, and then finally, after eight months, my dad went down to her gallery to ask “What’s up?” and she said that she would have to sell it before she could give him any money.  She was not courteous to him, so he left.  So about five months after that, I got a letter in the mail from her which was a Consignment Agreement, and said $500 for the box and $250 would go to me.  About five months after that, I got a check for $250.  When we were in court, I found out that she had purchased it for the Castle Collection.”

“Chest in Attic” by James Castle, undated

In late 2010, Jeannie Schmidt found what was described in the court documents as “a large cache of Castle Art in the attic of the house,” after which Geraldine Garrow filed a lawsuit to try to compel both sisters to turn the art over to her to add to her formal collection.  An agreement was reached whereby the Schmidts would turn over any art located on the property for “safe keeping” in a safety deposit box until its ownership could be adjudicated.

When The Post & Email asked Jeannie why she thought a lawsuit was filed after she had owned the house for 13 years with the knowledge that she and her sister had located artwork on the property, she responded, “What I believe was the reason they came after my find is the sale of their collection to Louis-Dryfus. I believe that he doesn’t want us to have it because for one, he is afraid we would flood the market and therefore decrease the value of his art, and because he wanted to generate publicity for James Castle artwork which will bring public attention and possibly an increase in interest in the work.”

After the agreement was reached, Jeannie Schmidt sold some art pieces, garnering about $120,000, and “did not tell the truth” in court about it, after which Judge Deborah Bail ruled that the Schmidts “had no ownership interest in the drawings” and ordered a judgment in that amount payable to the partnership.  The court also found that Wade’s four children, who were her heirs, were also heirs to Castle Art.

The Fourth Judicial District of Idaho states that Bail is “a District Judge for Ada County where she handles felony cases and civil cases exceeding $10,000.00.” She was re-elected in 2010 after running for office without an opponent along with 35 other judicial candidates who ran unopposed.

The Schmidts disagreed with Bail’s ruling, stating that “This finding is clearly erroneous.  Peggy Wade survived James Castle, who died intestate.  His sole heir was Peggy Wade. Her children could never be an heir of James Castle, unless Peggy Wade predeceased him.”  The Schmidt sisters have filed an appeal with the Idaho Supreme Court but as of this writing do not have a hearing date.

“Gail had always told me that whatever I found was ours because they had over 20,000 pieces and didn’t need any more,” Schmidt said.  “We always said we would find a big stash ever since we bought the house, kind-of tongue-in-cheek.  We knew he had hidden things everywhere.  Jackie denied that she ever sold anything for me, but there was that little box with the wood carvings with the commission agreement from her office.  I was looking through the book, James Castle: A Retrospective, and I just happened to see that box featured right on page 97, and I said, ‘Oh, OK, so the box is nothing…’  That’s what they said in court:  that it was just ephemera, and it didn’t mean anything.  If it’s not important, then why is it featured in the book?”

Schmidt said that the wood carvings are the only such items known to have been made by Castle, although the judge ruled that they were “ephemera,” which is the materials used to create art.

“There were drawings that he made that the mice had a heydey with,” said Schmidt.  “There were totes full of shredded books that he made, tens of thousands of dollars’ worth.”

The four children of Agnes Wade filed a quiet title suit in order to sell Castle’s work, although neither Jeannie Schmidt nor Susan Schmidt was named as a party precluded from claiming ownership of Castle Art.  “The statutes ran out years and years ago.  They did the quiet title suit in 2008, but Judge Bail decided that the time frame was not going to start until 2010 after the last stash was found.  They had their time to do something about it, and they never said anything about it until then,” Schmidt said.

The Post & Email asked if Judge Bail appeared to have a conflict of interest in the case, to which Schmidt responded, “She had done her internship for an art attorney, so she had been involved in a lot of art matters.  I don’t know if that joins her in, but she allowed testimony about the fact that I had sold some of the art after I said that I would put it all in the safe deposit box.  I was losing the house; my father was dying; we didn’t have much of a choice or we were just going to end up homeless and on the street.  So I did sell some of the art.  I didn’t sell a whole lot, and I sold it through a very reputable person, so it went to collectors.  I didn’t sell it through eBay or do anything stupid.”

Regarding her appeal, Schmidt said that “there is no law regarding this sort of thing yet anywhere, so this case will set a precedent for this kind of thing.  It’s bad law for her [Judge Bail] to say that somebody can sell the property and 17 years later, come back and say, ‘I forgot that marble sink was in there.  I want that.’  She didn’t like what I did and that’s how she worded it.  We never got her written ruling from August 2011, and we had to go back to court the following April when they started the trial.  She never even gave us the summary judgment.”

The Post & Email asked if there was any evidence that the document had never been mailed, to which Schmidt responded, “No, it’s just because she didn’t want to.  She said from the get-go she didn’t want this case.  When my lawyer called her to get the documents, she said, ‘Oh, I think they’re on my desk; I haven’t had time to look…’  So she never even read through the documents or anything.  I think a lot of her decision is because she didn’t care.  She said that I didn’t say certain things in my emails when they said that exact thing.”

Schmidt said that even though she sold some of the art to raise money while her father was ill, it “had no bearing on what happened before we found the art.”  Schmidt said that the family members “didn’t even bother” to look for art in the walls in the attic, which she considers “abandonment.”

“There is also the bunkhouse on our property that was James’s art studio that he lived in for 20-some years.  They told everybody it was knocked down, and then his little cozy-cottage trailer is what they’re saying is historical – his ‘dreamhouse.’  But now people know that the bunkhouse is still here.  The city was going to buy it from me, but then they couldn’t because they’re afraid of the legal ramifications with the levy against me.  That was here on the property.  I own that.  The artwork that was found out in that bunkhouse should be mine as well.  It’s a tiny little bunkhouse, but that had to go in the safe deposit box, too,” Schmidt said.  “It doesn’t make any sense.”

Schmidt said that before 2000, a park ranger found “a bunch of Castle artwork” in Garden Valley, where the family’s former icehouse had been.  “There was a bunch of artwork, some of which they burned, and some was donated to the Boise Art Museum, and the partnership never went after them for it,” Schmidt told us.

There are two attorneys representing Schmidt in her appeal to the Idaho Supreme Court.  Following an injury and becoming her father’s caretaker until his death, Jeannie Schmidt is currently experiencing severe financial hardship. She maintains that any artwork found in the house belongs to her sister or her and believes that the judge issued a punitive ruling.  “When Judge Bail said that the artwork belonged to the [Castle] family, and whatever art might still be in the house belongs to them, why do they not have the right to come in and search for it?” she said.

Schmidt’s appeal is based on a contention of errors in judgment on the part of Judge Bail and the inherent right of a property-owner to anything remaining on the property at the time of the sale.

Depositions from the trial can be read here:  Jacqueline Crist Deposition

Gail Johnson Deposition





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