Benton painting given as high school class gift should be displayed according to graduate

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OVERLAND PARK, Kan. -- Graduates from Shawnee Mission North High School are upset over a priceless work of art, which is no longer on display, after graduates donated it more than 50 years ago.

One graduate called this, "the worst decision the school district could make."

That's one observation on a senior gift that was given by the Shawnee Mission North class of 1957. The painting they donated can no longer being seen at the school, perhaps because its value has skyrocketed by as much as 1,000 percent.

A lot has changed since 1957 Kansas City attorney Mike White points to his past for one example. White is a graduate of the former Shawnee Mission High School, which is now called Shawnee Mission North. As a class gift to the school, White and his classmates bought an original painting called "Utah Highlands" by locally based artist Thomas Hart Benton, but it hasn't been seen for some time.

“It's now gone somewhere that nobody knows,” White said.

He and other graduates say the painting used to hang in the school library and was protected by a sheet of glass. When they purchased it 58 years ago, it was worth $700, but as is the case with fine art, the appraised value has gone up.

“I've heard numbers in excess of a million dollars in terms of the value today,” White said.

The painting shows a colorful landscape with rolling hills and a multi-hued canvas. Experts say it's one of Benton's best works. White says it needs to be on display, as it was meant to be in the first place.

“It seems to me the worst option is what's being done, which is to hide it away someplace, and no one ever sees it,” he said.

Stephanie Knapp is a caretaker of many of Benton's works. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art has 130 of Benton's paintings to share with the public. Knapp agrees that original works are hard to come by, and should be shared with the public.

“I hope we can trust those who have the painting, that they have it in safe-keeping and in good hands,” Knapp said. “It's a one-of-a-kind painting, so it's hard to put a price on that.”

White says he won't rule out a petition drive to ask the school district to return the painting to the school library, or to sell it. FOX 4 reached out to SMSD administration for comment. Leigh Anne Neal, the district's spokesperson, said the district has the painting in safekeeping, but in order to prevent safety or security concerns, she wouldn’t elaborate any further.

Editor's Note: A previous version of this story stated that the painting was donated by the Shawnee Mission class of 1958. FOX 4 received new information that the painting was actually donated by the Shawnee Mission class of 1957.