Return $125K painting from N.J. mayor’s office or we’re taking legal action, official says

The president of the Belleville Historical Society in Essex County said Wednesday the community library board violated local and state laws by giving the mayor a precious painting.

“This historic and extremely valuable painting, on loan to the library by the (historical society), has been illegally removed from the premises,” Michael Perrone said in a statement to the trustees during a meeting.

“Landscape of Belleville,” painted nearly 200 years ago by Philadelphia artist Thomas J. Natt, was valued at $ 125,000 in 2010.

Descendants of Belleville founder Josiah Hornblower donated the painting to the historical society in 1962.

The piece was on view for nearly 60 years when the library board passed a resolution in June 2020 to award the artwork to Mayor Michael Melham.

Perrone said that Melham, as president of the library trustees, controls the board of directors and lets them pass a resolution lending him the painting. However, since the library does not own the painting, it was illegal for them to loan it to third parties “without the consent of the historical society,” Perrone said.

Melham told NJ Advance Media this week that it had taken the painting out of the library to prevent it from being damaged by the library’s leaky roof. He said the painting was on display in his town hall office, where it was viewed by residents and dignitaries alike.

But Perrone said the historical society, Hatch, and others around town want the painting back on display in the library immediately. Hatch fired a letter to the community police chief Mark Minichini, Attorney General Gurbir Grewal and others on March 2, demanding that the painting be returned to the library “immediately and safely”.

“For security reasons, both the Belleville Historical Society and the Belleville Public Library have always kept the value of the painting strictly confidential,” Perrone said in his statement.

“The irresponsible act of taking the painting out of the library and then declaring the value of the painting at a public meeting made a bad situation worse by creating a major security issue,” he said.

Melham, the library board president, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Thursday.

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Anthony G. Attrino can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @TonyAttrino. Find NJ.com on Facebook.

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