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African art most valuable collection at North Dakota Museum of Art

What is the most valuable piece of art at the North Dakota Museum of Art? Museum Director Laurel Reuter says that can be a difficult question to answer. "The problem with art is you just can't appraise it," she said. It may be one value at the ti...

What is the most valuable piece of art at the North Dakota Museum of Art?

Museum Director Laurel Reuter says that can be a difficult question to answer.

"The problem with art is you just can't appraise it," she said. It may be one value at the time it is procured and an entirely different appreciated value later.

For instance, she said the museum paid $6,000 for some pieces by Chinese calligraphy and language artist Xu Bing, and they now are valued at $250,000.

Even so, Reuter said if she had to give an answer, she would say the most valuable "collection of art" is the museum's African collection from friend and New York artist Barton Benes.

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The large collection of primarily West African art was valued at $800,000. The gift came after Benes also donated the contents of his New York apartment to the museum.

"I remember we were out eating or having dinner and had come from the apartment and he said, 'What am I going to do with all this stuff,'" Reuter recalled. "I said, 'Give to me, and I'll make a 21st century artist's studio period room out of it.' And he did. We had two 24-foot U-Hauls stacked to the top when they moved it here."

At the time, the apartment collection was said to include more than $1 million in African, Egyptian and contemporary art. Benes also designed the Museum Shop and the Donor Wall.

A New York Times article published after his 2012 death said "Benes became so well-known for collecting artifacts and turning them into art, that he developed a vast network of friends who would send him relics - often items discarded by celebrities."

For instance, he framed a gallstone removed from actor and friend Larry Hagman and made art out of napkins used by Brooke Shields, Robert DeNiro and Nancy Reagan. He had jelly beans from President Ronald Reagan's Oval Office, and even a human toe found on New York's Williamsburg Bridge.

His art was sometimes controversial, and some museums would not show it. One such exhibit was a collection of 30 vessels, including a water pistol, that contained HIV-infected blood.

Reuter said the museum's latest audit in June 2016 indicated its total art collection was valued at more than $4 million at the point the art was acquired.

Admission to the museum at 261 Centennial Drive is free. Hours are from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays and from 1 to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

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