Dehn artists at work in studio

Adolf and Virginia Dehn worked in this New York studio during the 1940s. After the death of Adolf Dehn, a Waterville native, Virginia agreed to donate about $250,000 to the county historical society. A judge ruled Monday that the Le Sueur County Historical Society is the rightful owner of the trust.

Photo courtesy of Le Sueur County Historical Society, photographer John D. Schiff.

LE CENTER — The Le Sueur County Historical Society, not an Elysian historical nonprofit, is the rightful owner of a $256,000 donation from the widow of artist Adolf Dehn, a judge ruled Monday.

District Court Judge Richard Perkins found that the countywide historical society was both the intended recipient of the charitable trust and the more appropriate entity to act as trustee.

Assuming the Elysian nonprofit doesn’t appeal, the countywide historical society can take control of the donation after 30 days.

Coming after years of legal wrangling between the groups, the decision helps to disperse a cloud hanging over the historical society, said Quentin Wittrock, an attorney with the Minneapolis firm Gray Plant Mooty who worked on the case pro bono.

“We wanted to see this dispute that has been plaguing Le Sueur County finally resolved,” he said. “Once and for all, we believe with this ruling it is clear that the Le Sueur County Historical Society has been the party entrusted with carrying out the intent of the donor …”

An attorney with the Elysian nonprofit said Tuesday he hadn’t had time to read the ruling or discuss it with his client.

A Le Sueur County County commissioner cited the lawsuit last fall as one reason the budget didn’t include any historical society funding in 2015.

The decision about which group was better positioned to carry out the will of the donor was at the core of the judge’s ruling, Wittrock said.

The ruling noted the historical society is recognized by the Minnesota Historical Society and Le Sueur County and has been the head of historical preservation in the county since it was formed in 1965.

The Elysian group, often called Chapter 1, incorporated as a nonprofit in 1990 but remained a “subservient affiliate” to the county group, according to the ruling. In 2010, the historical society moved to consolidate its five chapters.

After waging a failed legal contest for control of the historical museum in its city, the Elysian group refused to join the consolidated group. There was also a lawsuit over whether the countywide group was the legitimate historical society. A judge ruled that it was, which Wittrock said he had hoped would put an end to the dispute.

But questions loomed about the Dehn donation, made in about 1980. Dehn was a Waterville native and one of the foremost lithographers of the early 20th century.

By 1983, proceeds from the sale of the art were put in the art fund, which was managed by a committee of historical society members called the Elysian Arts Council. Other pieces were sold over the years.

The countywide group’s lawsuit claimed that, starting in 2000, the council tried to separate itself from the wider historical society in an attempt to “misappropriate” the art fund. The council transferred the funds into nine accounts at the Elysian Bank, which handed the money over to the court in November as a result of the June lawsuit.

The resolution means the historical society can now begin promoting Dehn’s art, said the society’s coordinator, Kathy Burns.

“We already have discussed as part of fall programming that we’d be featuring the art of Adolf Dehn,” she said. The society has received a grant from the Prairie Lakes Regional Arts Council to archive the collection.

She’s not sure whether the decision will improve the society’s relationship with the county, considering she doesn’t believe the two issues — the lawsuit and the county’s funding decisions — should be related.

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