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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)

Jeff - Your point would be absolutly correct *IF* the art were sold within the fair market value, or through a public auction. There are multi-million dollar missing in this transaction. The issue is not 'why' OCMA sold the art, it is rather 'how' they execute the sales. Check out the state attorney general website for Charities if you want to learn more.

angle - thanks for your advice. I am chillllll. whew!

we are living in the bernard madoff era, scam artists are everywhere...

let's all chill out!

Great works (e.g. an A+ Redmond) command their true value in any market. A tight timeframe and a soft market aren’t legitimate rationale for selling these paintings at a fraction of their true value.

Aggressive oversight of these institutions isn’t possible, and this makes full transparency essential.

Who were the appraisers? How were the paintings figured? Who brokered the deal? Who is the end collector?

The only reason for this information to remain guarded is to hide transgressions.

The Attorney General's office must investigate this gross abuse of the museum's 501c3 tax-exempt status.

How could Dennis Szakacs think that the best way to "keep them in the community" is to sell the paintings at an enormous discount to a private collector without giving local museums an opportunity to purchase? Did he really think that the public would accept this excuse? He should have known better. Since he did not, Szakacs should be fired immediately before he does more damage to the institution.

Instead of continuing to give absurd excuses, Szakacs needs to admit that the museum made a mistake. Acting as if this transaction was perfectly acceptable will not help relationships between the museum and the community. This scandal has certainly harmed the reputation of the museum and will likely discourage future donations.

In order to truly serve the community, OCMA should encourage the purchaser to donate or sell the works to the Laguna and/or Irvine museums.

What is even worse than the apparent breach of ethical standards here is the fact that by making this private sale to a local Mystery Collector the OCMA - which is always in need of funds - left perhaps millions of dollars on the table that could have helped the institution. Who has that kind of money to throw away?

The real question here is how do you trust the leadership of a Museum Director that has shown they are that STUPID!? Why Szakacs did not simply take these works to auction - assuming he needed the funds - and let the market set the value of these works while maintaining complete transparency on the transaction is astounding! Either this man thinks the patrons of the arts in Orange County are complete idiots, or HE IS!

Funny how the museum claims that they sold them to this private person to keep them in Laguna, and yet where can they be viewed - Nevada? They probably could have done better on Craig's List or eBay!

LACMA & Norton Simon (aka Pasadena Museum of Art) made the same decision in the 70's, but did this more responsibly and with greater transparency. Both museums auctioned important works and by all accounts, that was judged a mistake by later generation of curators and art historians.

Szakacs is only fooling himself and covering his colossial mistake by stating "we made absolutely the right decision." Let's be honest here: "Silver & Gold" is one of Redmond's all time best works and the same grade applies to "Spring in the Canyon" by Wendt. By selling these painting secretly, the Museum Director and Board disenfranchised not only the future generations of OCMA visitors, but the thousands of current Museum supporters, Laguna Art Museum and dozens of collectors that missed out on the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to cast their bids on masterpieces by first-tier California artists.

A dark cloud of will shadow the OCMA until the facts surrounding this sale are revealed, becasue it simply does not make any sense. The only person benefitting here was the buyer, who I do not begrudge...he made an unbelievably savy purchase. Like 'adoptivefather' opined, maybe we should see what else is for sale at the OCMA's Half-Off sale. I hear they still have two of the original 20 paintings left.


I just have hard time to believe it was a 'collector' who bought the whole group of art. Why? Because true collectors don't buy art in a bulk! Each savy collector has its own taste. They might select a few pieces if they were offered a group of art to buy. I suspect there was art dealer involve broker the transaction. It might very likely that some of the paintings from the group have already re-sold to other people. If that really happened, there will be no chance to reverse the sales. isnt this depressing?

Legacy:

Artists capture moments, helping generations understand the history of society, place, science, fashion and a collection of the artifacts that defined a space in time. The artists of the Laguna Colony who led the California Impressionist Movement quantified early Orange County profoundly. Their work has only begun to be realized as a contributing piece in the quilted fabric of art history but their legacy will be a significant material. It is vital if not for today but for future generations that we preserve the legacy of this movement.
Recent actions by the Orange County Museum of Art (OCMA) have been contradictory to this preservation. The decision to sell the art work to a private undisclosed buyer through a closed negotiation that neglected any local or regional museums is a direct violation of the responsibilities that were entrusted to the museum. Donations of this valued art work by its patrons who were entrusting the art's legacy to a local public institution have been breeched. Unfortunately the current museum director Dennis Szakacs does not respect the wishes of the benefactors of the Plein Air works which were donated to OMCA's predecessor museum's the Laguna Art Museum and the Newport Harbor Art Museum. Dennis Szakacs has abused his position as museum director and has cost us and future generations a piece of our legacy by his reckless sale of our communal heritage. For that Dennis should not be entrusted with the director position at OMCA.

Mr. Szakacs should resign or be fired.

It's interesting that hey ended up in a Nevada museum. I wonder if the reason they are in Nevada is that the buyer wanted to avoid paying sales tax and either had a Nevada residence or a Nevada corporation. If so, the story of keeping them with a Laguna Beach collector is not true or partially true. I cannot think of any other reason that someone would choose a Nevada museum except that they could not bring them back over state lines or they would have to pay some type of tax.

I sure hope the L.A. Times (and hopefully the Art Newspaper and N.Y. Times as well) stays the course to push an investigation of the corrupt way "Dennis the Menace" is operating this organization. After making a few calls to Trustee members I know, they all said to call Dennis and he would fully explain the move and that after talking to him you will understand why they all followed this private sale to an "anonymous" well known laguna collector. It is like hearing the lemmings as they are told to walk into the sea holding Szakacs hand. Sorry, you "lame duck" trustees, Dennis is in Basel on an OCMA financed spree eating white asparagus at our expense. Say goodbye to many who believe that this organization continues to spiral downward under Dennis's truly amazing guidance? I for one and most others I talk to are not supporting OCMA again until Dennis is given a kick down the road. OCMA membership need to show there thoughts by joining myself and others I have talked to by ripping their membership cards in half and mailing them into the trustees, care of OCMA museum.

Mr. Bob Myers, instead of ripping your membership card with your buddies, you may consider a protest and demand for refund. File a small claim complaint to court if ocma refuse to refund your membership fee and donations.

Nevada theory
We find a museum out of state that agrees to take a pre-made California Impressionist exhibit.
We ship directly to them and throw in some extra pieces that the buyer doesn’t want to make a full exhibit.
No one locally will notice since they are not close to home.
If found out within 60 days we just say that we loaned them to that museum.
If found out after 60 days we tell the story about selling them so that the world can see them and point out that they are already on exhibit. Laguna won’t be able to get a California court to issue an injunction since they are out of state.

The Exhibit will run until November 29th. By that time this will all have blown over and the buyer will be able to sell off what he didn't want.

This may all be fantasy. Suffice it to say that Dennis did not do this on his own. You can’t just throw 18 paintings in the back of a pick up truck overnight. Wonder what the other senior staff and board knew and when.

A museum which facility is a "four-level, 55,000 square foot" building doesn't plan exhibition only 3 months ahead. Major museums this size usually have exhibition schedule of at least 3 years planned out in advance. Looking at Nevada Museum's website you will find this so-call exhibition is nothing more than "displaying" the 10 paintings. The unusual lightening-short time from concept to opening (3 months?), the show likely have hidden agendas.

We live in northern San Diego county and used to go up to visit the museum quite frequently when it was the Newport Harbor Museum of Art, before it got gobbled up by OCMA. They had some wonderfully edgy shows there. I had a bad feeling when I heard they'd been taken over by OCMA and my subsequent visits, which have decreased in frequency over the years to almost none, have proved my fears to be justified.

Sad, really.

Furthermore this private sale sounds like a payoff. for instance was the buyer one of the past trustees who pushed through the original laguna merger in which these paintings were acquired from Laguna Art Museum. If so then this sale is obviously criminal. Also why are the paintings now in reno nevada? Was this to avoid taxes. It certainly is not benefitting the local community. Also in question is whether or not Dennis Szacis benefited from this sale personally. Has he had a recent increase in his personal checking account from this mystery buyer?

Board of Trustees 08-09
Chairman & President
David Emmes

Vice President & Governance
Ellen R. Marshall

Vice President, Committee on Trustees
Eugene Spiritus

Treasurer
Craig Wells

Secretary
Annette Wiley

Duane Allen
Darrel Anderson
Donald L. Bren
Hal Brice
James Carona
David Emmes II
Linda Fitz-Horioka
Scott N. Flanders
Stephen T. Fry
Jeff Gehl
Gregory Keever
Barbara Klein
Michael Krichman
Ellen R. Marshall
Carl McLarand
Richard A. Meier
Lilly Merage
Jayne Murrel
James Muzzy
Randall S. Parker
Dr. James B. Pick
Michael D. Ray
Joan Riach
Robert Roth
J. Steven Roush
Brian Stone
Eugene Spiritus
Jennifer Van Bergh
Timothy W. Weiss
Craig W. Wells
Annette Wiley

Trustees Emeriti

Peter Alexander
Frances A. Bass
Joan F. Beall
Harry G. Bubb
Alison Baker Frenzel
Teri Kennady
Gilbert E. LeVasseur, Jr.
Leon Lyon
Charles D. Martin
Thomas H. Nielsen
Carl Neisser
Thomas B. Rogers
Judge James V. Selna
Claudette Shaw
John R. Stahr
Mrs. Richard Steele
David S. Tappan, Jr.
Thomas Tierney

Most of the trustees are "figure-head" trustee, they dont go to board meetings. The figurehead type of Board is where most non-profits get in troubles, because major decisions are made by a small circle of board members within the board itself. In some cases, decisions are made by committee of non-board members.

The argument that because these paintings were sold to a local collector they'll be available to the general public is simply ridiculous.

Once a private collector dies and their estate is sold, paintings usually are dispersed all over the place.

The only way to guarantee a public viewing is to keep these, and other paintings, in the museum, a public space open to all !

Museums are democratic institutions, private collections (unless they're on permanent public display) by definition are not.

Let's see how many trustees are gone from the list compare to June 2009:

Board of Trustees 08-09
Chairman & President
David Emmes

Vice President & Governance
Ellen R. Marshall

Vice President, Committee on Trustees
Eugene Spiritus

Treasurer
Craig Wells

Secretary
Annette Wiley

Duane Allen
Darrel Anderson
Donald L. Bren
Hal Brice
James Carona
David Emmes II
Linda Fitz-Horioka
Scott N. Flanders
Stephen T. Fry
Jeff Gehl
Gregory Keever
Barbara Klein
Michael Krichman
Ellen R. Marshall
Carl McLarand
Richard A. Meier
Lilly Merage
Jayne Murrel
James Muzzy
Randall S. Parker
Dr. James B. Pick
Michael D. Ray
Joan Riach
Robert Roth
J. Steven Roush
Brian Stone
Eugene Spiritus
Jennifer Van Bergh
Timothy W. Weiss
Craig W. Wells
Annette Wiley

 
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