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OCMA sells paintings to private collector, prompting criticism

June 14, 2009 | 10:22 pm

WendtThe Orange County Museum of Art in Newport Beach has quietly sold 18 of its 20 California Impressionist paintings to an undisclosed private collector, sparking criticism from two local museum directors who say the secrecy violated the public interest by preventing them from bidding to keep the works in collections open to the public.

The Times learned of the sale after a reader’s tip on Culture Monster. Reached Friday in Zurich, Switzerland, OCMA director Dennis Szakacs said the paintings from the early 1900s fetched a total of $963,000 in late March from a Laguna Beach collector whose identity the museum promised not to disclose. Szakacs defended the transaction.

“We were exchanging a high level of transparency available in an auction for the desirability of keeping these paintings with a local collector,” he said. “It’s quite possible we could have made more money, but we chose to keep them in the community. I think we made absolutely the correct decision.”

Szakacs added that the works no longer fit the focus of OCMA, a privatenonprofit institution that since 2003 has shifted its collection to art created after 1950. In keeping with museum-world standards, the money will be used only to buy art for the collection, said Szakacs, who is in Europe scouting for acquisitions.

The sale comes as sensitivities about selling from museum collections are at a high pitch, with several recent, nationally debated cases of economically pressed nonprofit institutions selling or resolving to sell works to pay general expenses. Two major professional organizations, the American Assn. of Museums and the Assn. of Art Museum Directors, condemn selling from collections unless it’s to raise money to buy other artworks.

RedmondGuidelines of the museum directors’ group encourage works sold — “deaccessioned,” in museum parlance — from public collections to be offered to another nonprofit, placed for public auction or sold to “a reputable, established dealer.” The auction and dealer routes give other museums a chance to bid for the art.

What OCMA says it did is not a clear-cut ethical breach, said Janet Landay, executive director of the Assn. of Art Museum Directors. “Frequently these things are less than black and white,” she said, and a private sale to a collector “isn’t in that level of egregious behavior” and “could easily be a very legitimate decision.”

That doesn’t wash with Bolton Colburn, director of the Laguna Art Museum, and Jean Stern, director of the Irvine Museum. Both say that if they’d known the California Impressionists were for sale, they would have sought donors to bankroll bids. The genre, often called “plein air painting,” is important to both museums.

“It’s just sad,” Colburn said, especially because the paintings, which include prime pieces by early 20th century artists William Wendt and Granville Redmond, represent the birth of the Orange County art scene in the Laguna Beach art colony and were long housed at the Laguna Art Museum.

“This was probably the most significant symbolic part of the collection,” Colburn said. Most of the sold works were donated decades ago by the artists or their friends and heirs, he said, but went to OCMA during a contentious 1996 merger. At the time, the Laguna Art Museum joined the Newport Harbor Art Museum, creating a new entity — OCMA. After a lawsuit and public outcry in Laguna, the new museum disgorged its Laguna branch, and a rechartered Laguna Art Museum was launched in 1997.

“Knowing the goals and mission of OCMA, it doesn’t surprise me that they sold them, but I’m stunned they sold it privately and are keeping it quiet,” said Stern.

Colburn said he learned of the sale about three weeks ago, when a staffer inquired about borrowing one of OCMA’s paintings for a planned Clarence Hinkle retrospective. The response: It had been sold to a private collector who couldn’t be identified. Another inquiry, about Wendt’s “Spring in the Canyon,” which Laguna had borrowed last fall for its Wendt retrospective “In Nature’s Temple,” brought the same response.

Upset, Colburn said, “I sent a letter to Dennis, saying that what they’ve done had come to our attention, and we weren’t pleased at a number of different levels.” Colburn said there was no response.

Meanwhile, 10 of the paintings are now on public display — at the Nevada Art Museum in Reno, which on May 16 opened an exhibition called “Open Air: Impressions of the California Landscape.” Director David Walker said they were loaned by an anonymous collector who approached his museum in late February.

SzakacsThe Reno show, says Szakacs, illustrates a key reason why the OCMA trustees decided to sell to that collector after first considering an auction sale. By placing the paintings with a Laguna Beach enthusiast who Szakacs says is “known for championing California plein air works” and lending them to museums, the odds they’ll be available to the local public are better than if they’d been auctioned and “scattered to the four winds.” Szakacs said he would be “perfectly willing” to help other museums contact the collector.

Another consideration, Szakacs said, was that given the extensive California Impressionist offerings at the Laguna and Irvine museums and elsewhere, “Orange County is saturated with this work.” With the $963,000, he said, OCMA can acquire modern and contemporary pieces that museum-goers otherwise would not see. So far on his trip, he said, he has spent $95,000 for a 1984 painting by Jack Goldstein, “a very important California artist who was not in our collection.”

Whether OCMA got a good price for the works sold appears to be another matter of contention.

George Stern, a West Hollywood art dealer and brother of the Irvine Museum’s Stern, specializes in California Impressionists. Running down the list of paintings on show in Reno, he said that “in a good market” — which might have meant waiting for the economy to improve — Wendt’s “Spring in the Canyon” would conservatively fetch $750,000 to $1 million and so might Redmond’s “Silver and Gold.” Altogether, he estimated, the 10 could be worth more than double what OCMA says it got for all 18.

Colburn, the Laguna Art Museum director, agrees that “Silver and Gold” is a million-dollar painting, “an A-plus, a perfect Redmond, one of the five best paintings he ever did,” while “Spring in the Canyon” could fetch “maybe half a million. They should have achieved close to those numbers, and if they didn’t, that would be very disappointing.”

Szakacs said that OCMA researched the paintings’ market value with experts at a leading auction house and with two L.A.-based “independent evaluators who don’t own galleries and don’t deal art.” He said the $963,000 compared “very favorably” with the experts’ estimates. Selling now made sense, he added, because OCMA doesn’t foresee the art market bouncing back soon, and it can take advantage of lower prices for the modern and contemporary works it wants to buy.

After negotiating the price with the private buyer, Szakacs said, OCMA was not obligated to seek a better bid from another museum. “We had kind of closed the book and needed to move forward on our own timetable.” 

-- Mike Boehm

Art critic Christopher Knight contributed to this report. 

Top: William Wendt's "Spring in the Canyon"; middle: Granville Redmond's "Silver and Gold." Credit: Laguna Art Museum. Bottom: Dennis Szakacs in 2004; credit: Los Angeles Times.

Comments () | Archives (60)

This really is disgraceful. This man should be fired. I don't know who donated these works of art, but they certainly should have been consulted. And yes, the sale should have been completely transparent and open to the public.


because it is a 501(c) non-profits organization, there are rules on what and how the director can do with the assets, which were acquired or gifted with tax-free money. So to sell off assets to a designated private party with a deep discount, with the understanding that “It’s quite possible we could have made more money (to sell in an auction)", this is where one of the major issues is.

There are auction and retail records to prove these important works can fetch a lot more money than what OCMA sold for.


"The AAMD is not complaining. OCMA's board is not complaining."

Give them few more days, I am sure you will hear from these two groups on this. Some trustees are furious about the news yesterday. If you know some trustees as you said, you should know. Many of them are great people, they might not have been involved or even knew about the sales, but that doesn't mean they are not responsible for this.

The staff should be fired, the board should resign. I saw a similar thing happen in the recent past. The staff and the board collude because they both want to play "Contemporary International Art World." In this case they have underestimated and devalued American Impressionism and the California Plein Air school. They have deaccessioned an asset that hasn't even begun to realize it's true value.

If I lived in their area...and I was born there, I would call for them all to be driven out of the county.

I'll take any extra paintings at 50% off. What else is for sale down there?

Where do you send the campaign contribution?

Does anyone really think that a museum selling its works quietly to an anonymous private party for effectively half price sound legitimate? Kickbacks aren't just in the movies and this reeks of a big one.

Can anyone spell K-I-C-K-B-A-C-K!

I wonder if Szakacs is sporting a new watch or driving a new car these days?

This wreaks!

I could've bought a Wendt in 95 for around 20 grand and being the cheapskate that I am I passed on the deal. I kick myself everyday about this. I was considering donating some artworks to a museum so the public would have access to their history and beauty but if this is what museums do with their donated collections I'm going to have to change my plans. Maybe a university , I don't know. This is a bad policy IMHO.

Follow the money.

Who benefits by a secret sale?
Who benefits by a 1/2 off sale?

Were did the money go?
What else has been sold this way?
Was it really going to be used for new acquisitions?
Probably some nervous accountants already cooperating with the Feds or AG.

It's my opinion that this sort of public discourse is exactly what Mr. Szakacs was trying to avoid when he chose not to sell these paintings at auction. If the paintings had been offered at auction, that opened the way to this sort of criticism, plus potential law suits..

Dennis Szakacs should be fired. Period. Two local institutions whose collections are clearly a better fit for these paintings were not given the opportunity to purchase them because a private collector acquired them at bargain-basement prices. It might not be criminal, but it was certainly not serving the public interest. Was it arrogance or ignorance that led him to believe this hush-hush job would not come to light?

While taking a rather extreme tack, Jim VanKirk does bring up a good point: OCMA's pretentions toward being an international contemporary art world "playah," and its correllary attitude of being too good for the local community that it serves. Szakacs' actions make this attitude glaringly obvious: get rid of those provincial plein air paintings, quickly and cheaply; don't bother informing the other two local museums because they are simply not in OCMA's league; use the funds to go on a faaaaabulous shopping and schmoozing trip in Europe. There's nothing wrong with aspiring toward global prominence, but there is a LOT wrong with behaving in a psychotically rude fashion (check out today's OC Register article) and treating your community like dirt. It IS possible to effectively serve your community while also building a program of global renown -- just look at the real art world "playahs," like the Walker Art Center, Brooklyn Art Museum, SFMOMA, etc.

How in the world do these things happen? Amazingly these trustees decided in their infinte wisdom to give this deal away. The Redmond alone is worth $1million which I would be happy to pay. How is this an ethical transaction, where is the due dilligence and shouldn't the public sale of these be consdiered at MULTIPLES of the stupid low $963K???
Where is the logic , with $963k you might get a decent quality original contmempary piece . Nice job trustees you must be very proud.


Whoever either purchased these paintings, or the agent or dealer who represented them, is certainly an enemy to the community of Laguna Beach and to the entire State of California. Shame on all those involved, at any level, from the director to the purchaser to the dealer and middlemen. They all should be stripped of their positions and standing in the community. I am sure they already feel their culpability and know exactly what they did wrong, and that it why this whole affair is so "anonymous". Time will bring out the truth and they will all scatter like rats.

The fact that no one in the local art community knows a thing about the buyer of these is very fishy. I definitely smell an inside job. Why would the OCMA not give the Laguna Art Museum a chance to find some patrons to generate funds to purchase these? I should think that they would be interested. Or is the animosity between the two too great?

Considering all the bad press in recent years about museums selling works out the back door, don't you think the OCMA would have been a bit more careful.

What an outrage. These treasures belong in a museum in Orange County where they can be enjoyed by everyone and should have been offered to the Laguna Art Museum or the Irvine Museum. An hour on the phone could have raised this price from art lovers in OC. This was WAY too little for these works. Time for a little investigation.

everyone should just chill out

anon 2 for sure should chill out

laguna beach art museum is a joke

The Paintings in the transaction are no longer relevant to the mission statement of OCMA correct? This relieves the duty of the museum to the public to show these paintings. These paintings are now out in the world and able to be seen, is this not what is about? The profits now enable new works to be purchased and shown to a public that is aware of what OCMA's goal and obligation to the public is. The art world is in flux, ethics are in flux, congrats to dennis for being crafty enough to find ways to aquire new works. The times they are a changin.

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