It’s a question frequently asked by visitors to the intimate Watertown museum: Do you have the Kevorkian paintings?
The Armenian Library and Museum of America has a rich collection of illuminated manuscripts and a catalog of portrait photographs of some of the 20th century’s leading figures, but the grisly paintings by Dr. Death himself, assisted-suicide advocate Dr. Jack Kevorkian, continue to be a draw.
After a year of legal wrangling with the Kevorkian estate, the museum has managed to keep four of the 17 paintings by the late pathologist it had been holding. Under a settlement that was announced in October, the Kevorkian estate obtained the remainder of the paintings, and is expected to offer the pieces for sale at art galleries, according to news accounts.
The museum plans to display its Kevorkian paintings at some point, but exactly when hasn’t been determined. At least one of them, “1915 Genocide 1945,” will be shown in April, when the museum commemorates the Armenian genocide, said Haig Der Manuelian, chairman of its board of trustees.
That painting, which links the killing of 1.5 million Armenians by the Ottoman Turkish empire during and after World War I, and the 6 million Jews killed by Nazi Germany three decades later, was the most important piece for the museum to hold onto, and why the organization was willing to engage in its first legal battle, Der Manuelian said.
“The reason why we were adamant about it was the one painting,” he said. It resonates with the museum’s goal of teaching the public about the Armenian genocide, he added. “As far as I was concerned, a lot of the paintings were of no relevance to our mission.”
The painting shows the bloodied head of a woman held by two arms. On one sleeve is a Nazi uniform; the other is dressed in Ottoman Turkish garb. Kevorkian, the son of Armenian genocide survivors, is said to have used a mixture of human blood and paint in the piece.
The museum, at 65 Main St. in Watertown, will also keep “The Gourmet,” about the meaning of war, “The Double Cross of Justice,” about the broken judicial system, and “Fa, la, la, la, la,” which reflects on the commercialization of Christmas. The messages of all these the paintings are dark, and the images feature decapitated heads or skeletal bodies.
Mayer Morganroth, a Michigan-based attorney who represented the estate, did not respond to a call requesting a comment on the settlement. The estate has picked up its 13 paintings from the museum.
After the settlement, Morganroth told the Detroit News, “The settlement recognizes the need for his art to be preserved as part of Armenian culture, while returning artwork to his heir.”
Kevorkian died last year at the age of 83. He was a leading voice in the right-to-die movement, and, according to his own estimate, had helped 130 terminally ill people take their lives. He was convicted of second-degree murder in 1999 for giving a lethal injection to a 52-year-old Michigan man with Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Before going to prison to serve his 10- to 25-year term, Kevorkian gave his paintings to the Watertown museum. He served eight years of his sentence before he was released on parole. He visited the museum in 2008 for an exhibition of the paintings.
After Kevorkian’s death, his estate claimed ownership of the paintings, saying they were simply on loan to the museum for exhibition and storage, and arranged to sell them at auction in New York. The museum filed a civil lawsuit sued in federal court to block the auction, saying the paintings had been donated to it by Kevorkian. The estate has said the paintings could be worth as much as $3.5 million .
The Watertown museum is satisfied with the settlement, Der Manuelian said. It allows the museum to keep the paintings that are important to its mission and avoids the legal costs of a protracted dispute, he said.
“The paintings are a small aspect of our collection,” Der Manuelian said.