Challenges Raised by the Case, Howard University v. Borders

Gabrielle Stanfield

In June 2020, Howard University sued North Carolina couple, Larry and Virginia Borders, for the return of a drawing by African-American artist Charles White.[1] White, known for his distinctive work in charcoal drawing completed the work at issue, titled Centralia Madonna in 1947. The whereabouts of the piece came to the attention of Howard after the Borders initiated a consignment process for the drawing with Sotheby’s in May 2020. The dispute, decided before the Southern District of New York, highlights pertinent challenges in the process of provenance diligence and designating the respective obligations of parties in situations of contested ownership. In all, the outcome of this case is unsettling as it seems to have resulted in significant losses to an innocent party. Even more challenging, the ideal winner and loser in this case remains unclear.

Centralia Madonna came into the Borders’ possession byway of a gift by a family friend in or around 1972.[2] Several factors in the case point to the informal nature of this exchange, supporting a sympathetic position towards the Borders. For instance, the couple did not pay any money for the work, nor did they make any assessment of the artwork’s value at the time of gifting.[3] There was no bill of sale, or certificate of authenticity, all illustrating the fact that, at the time, consigning the work was not a clear priority.[4] It is noted that the Borders were presumably made aware of the piece’s authorship and potential prestige at some point between 1974 and 1975. However, for the next 48 years, the Borders took no action with respect to this information, including never appraising the work, pursuing insurance options, or displaying the work publicly.[5] 

In fact, it was a February 2020 episode of Antiques Roadshow which alerted the Borders’ attention to potential value in the piece, prompting them to contact Sotheby’s who presented them with estimates ranging from $300,00 to $500,000.[6] Signing onto the Sotheby’s consignment agreement for participation in the upcoming 2020 Sale of American Art, the Borders’ consented to the auction house’s diligence process, including measures to verify provenance prior to sale.  Howard was alerted to the whereabouts of Centralia Madonna in May 2020 when Sotheby’s’ discovered a 1947 newspaper article referencing the University’s purchase of the work from an art gallery. [7] An inquiry into whether or not Howard had any record of the work in its collection thus resulted in their demand for the return of the artwork on June 1, even threatening law enforcement involvement. Supporting this demand, the University cited documentation, “proving that the work was in the University’s possession as late as 1971.”[8] This evidence also revealed, however, that, as of 1976, University records listed the work with a demarcation of “loan(?)”; thereafter the whereabouts of the piece were unknown and uninvestigated, until the initiation of this case.

As the facts of this case alone did not clearly point to an ideal winner or loser in the Centralia Madonna dispute, the most recent issue considered by the SDNY in this case centered on the Border’s claim of laches.[9] Ultimately, the Court determined that Howard did not inexcusably sleep on its rights to the drawing, as such, the Borders were not subject to an affirmative defense of unreasonable or prejudicial delay. In reaching this conclusion, the Court appears to grant significant deference to the arguably shoddy record keeping practices of Howard. Understanding that the primary responsibility of the University extends beyond the scope of managing the art collection, it is striking that in the over 40-year period in which this work was absent from the Howard campus, responsible parties continuously failed to investigate the alleged “loan?” status of a seemingly important work in their collection.

In all, the Howard case highlights a sympathetic perspective in the complexity of provenance diligence. Even more so, this case illuminates potential harms resulting from imbalances in information and access in the provenance process. In all, these factors make it hard to view the outcome of this case as an exercise of justice. While on a positive note, the case outcome will result in the placement of this historical piece in the collection of a highly respected HBCU, the Borders’ suffered a disproportionate loss both in the physical removal of an artwork previously in their possession for over 50 years, lost profits in the sale of the work, and significant potential legal fees. Moreover, amongst the relevant parties in the case, the elderly North Carolina couple was arguably in the worst position with respect to the access, information, and resources necessary to complete a provenance investigation which may have prevented this litigation. Hopefully, despite Howard’s victory in this instance, the University and others will be incentivized to more closely monitor the whereabouts of pieces within their collections.  Furthermore, as auction houses continue to seek ways to increase the efficiency and thoroughness of their authentication process, it would seem beneficial for parties to pursue less adversarial approaches to settling ownership disputes.



[1] Sarah Cascone, A Charles White Drawing Went Missing From Howard University. After 40 Years, It Appeared at Auction — and Now Howard Wants It Back, Artnet (June 22, 2020), [] [].

[2] Howard Univ. v. Borders, No. 20-cv-4716 (LJL), 2022 BL 376466 at *6 (S.D.N.Y. Oct. 20, 2022).

[3] Id. at *6.

[4] Id. at *6.

[5] Id. at *7.

[6] Id. at *7.

[7] Id. at *2.

[8] Id. at *10.

[9] Id. at *12.