By Bernard Vaughan
NEW YORK (Reuters) - A state judge on Wednesday approved the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art's right to charge admission, delivering a partial victory to the museum in its battle against some patrons who claim visitors were tricked into paying a suggested $25 fee.
Justice Shirley Werner Kornreich dismissed claims the museum had breached its rent-free lease with the city by charging admission, and that it violated a 19th century statute authorizing appropriations for the museum's maintenance.
The museum in Central Park - loaded with antiquities and priceless art from around the world - is the largest in the United States and a major tourist attraction for the city.
The patrons filed lawsuits late last year and in March in Manhattan state court, claiming visitors to the museum were unaware the "recommended" $25 entrance fee is merely a suggestion, and that they can pay any amount.
Signs above the admissions desks at the museum list the entrance fees - $25 for adults, $17 for seniors and $12 for students - followed by the word "recommended" in small type below the word "admissions" in larger, bold type. The lawsuits said visitors were funneled in lines to the admissions desks, where cashiers collect a fee.
They sought an injunction to stop the museum from charging fees. One of the lawsuits also sought unspecified damages.
In dismissing part of those lawsuits, the judge said not allowing the museum to charge admission "would put the museum's ability to provide the current level of access in jeopardy."
The decision did not address claims that the museum misrepresented its admission costs. That part of the lawsuit goes forward.
In her ruling, Kornreich said all members of the public can afford to visit the museum under its current policy with a contribution of as little as a penny, which amounts to "de facto" free access.
The plaintiffs do not have a private right to sue under the 1893 statute and, as third-party beneficiaries, cannot sue for breach of the lease, Kornreich said.
New York City "has always known that the museum has been charging an admission fee," and "has never objected to such practice," Kornreich wrote.
Earlier this month, the city and museum amended their lease to formalize the practice of charging a "recommended" admission fee while still allowing visitors to pay what they choose..
In her ruling on Wednesday, Kornreich said the amended lease, "if anything, bolsters" her ruling.
The ruling "once and for all validates its longtime pay-what-you-wish admissions policy," museum spokesman Harold Holzer said in a prepared statement on Wednesday.
Arnold Weiss, a lawyer for plaintiffs in both cases, said the ruling "continues the case" and does not address "the fact that they have been deceiving the public wholesale."
Weiss also criticized the recent lease amendment as being "passed in the dead of night with no notice to the public by a lame duck administration."
The cases are Saska et al. v. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York Supreme Court, New York County, No. 650775-2013; and Grunewald et al v. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, in the same court, No 158002/2012.
(Reporting by Bernard Vaughan; Editing by Noeleen Walder, Daniel Trotta and Andrew Hay)