Artist Georgia O'Keefe near her New Mexico studio, circa 1968.
Artist Georgia O'Keefe near her New Mexico studio, circa 1968. - 
Listen To The Story

KAI RYSSDAL: Tennessee Attorney General Bob Cooper's dipping a toe into the art market. He's not buying anything. Instead, Cooper's putting the brakes on a deal between Fisk University in Nashville and the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Fisk is a historically black college that finds itself in a financial rough patch: rich in assets but low on cash. One of those assets is an art collection donated by Georgia O'Keeffe herself. The school had worked out a deal to sell the centerpiece of the collection to the O'Keeffe Museum. But Cooper, the Attorney General, said it's time to let the free market work. Blake Farmer reports.

BRIAN FARMER: The financial future of Fisk University may hang on a canvas. Fisk needs money to replenish its already modest endowment, which hasbeen cut in half over the past decade due to poor management andrising costs.

The school had struck a deal with Georgia O'Keeffe's estate that her iconic work"Radiator Building — Night, New York" could be sold on the cheap — for 7 million — to the O'Keeffe museum in Santa Fe. That would keep the painting in the family.

But Tennessee Attorney General Bob Cooper suspended the sale in Februaryand now has called it off entirely. As the steward of charitable gifts, he says O'Keeffe made clear before her death that she wanted the Stieglitz collection to stay together. Cooper also thought the school was selling the work short.

BOB COOPER: Now it seems clear, based on offers that Fisk has received, that in fact $7 million is an inadequate price. I think I did call it a bargain-basement price.

Since the deal was suspended, offers have climbed as high as $25 million. Fisk president Hazel O'Leary says it was hard to know what the O'Keeffe would command, considering 20th Century art is fetching record prices.

One way or the other, O'Leary says the school is in desperate need of funds for scholarships and research.

HAZEL O'LEARY: We will mortgage, sell whatever we have to.

While the university waits for the OK to sell the paintings, O'Leary says the school will ask alumni for extra support and look for grant money.

O'LEARY: That's what we'll be doing for the near term and we will be creative as we possibly can with respect to what else we'll borrow from.

Fisk has filed suit to sell the painting and now looks to be headed to court this summer.

In Nashville, I'm Blake Farmer for Marketplace.