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OCMA's sold paintings: Was the price right?

July 5, 2009 |  7:00 am

GranvilleRedmond The Orange County Museum of Art has been getting its name around lately in a way its leaders could have done without, following our reports on OCMA's private sale of 18 paintings -- witness this Wall Street Journal commentary on the do's and don'ts of "deaccessioning," the term for selling art from a museum's collection.

In this story on today's front page, we take a broader look at OCMA, including how, before The Times broke the news of its controversial sale of the 18 California Impressionist paintings to an unnamed  collector, it had been getting its name around for all the right reasons, as an organizer of acclaimed touring exhibitions.

The deaccessioning dust-up goes on, so we'll fill you in on the latest exchange in the game of "The Price Was Right/No, the Price Was Wrong" that OCMA director Dennis Szakacs and the museum's critics have been playing over whether the $963,000 the paintings fetched in March was a fair price -- or a bonanza for the buyer, who critics think would have had to pay at least twice as much at a public auction. 

Szakacs has said that the price was in line with what a prominent L.A. appraiser and a top auction house -- identified by one competitor as Christie's -- said the early 20th century works were worth, given a balky art market. On the other hand, The Times has interviewed others, including three dealers who specialize in California Impressionists and William H. Gerdts, the retired City University of New York art history professor who literally wrote the book on California Impressionism, who say the prize of the bunch, Granville Redmond's "Silver and Gold" (pictured), was worth $1 million on its own, with William Wendt's "Spring in the Canyon" worth $500,000 or more. 

Szakacs points to an Oct. 29 auction at Christie's in Beverly Hills, featuring California, Western and American art. The three Redmonds on display failed to sell, and Wendt's "Cup of Gold" went for $200,000 plus a $42,500 buyer's premium -- the bottom of Christie's pre-auction estimate of $200,000 to $300,000. Another Wendt, "Meadow and Hills," fetched about $25,000 -- the middle of the estimated $20,000-to-$30,000 range.

These results, plus the expert advice the museum had received, persuaded it that getting nearly $1 million for its California Impressionists was a fair deal, Szakacs says.

"I don’t know what context or what data people who are questioning the price are using," he said. "Is it a number they're pulling out of thin air? Because the data we very carefully compiled says otherwise."

But Whitney Ganz, who specializes in early California paintings as director of the William A. Karges Fine Arts gallery in Beverly Hills, says the October auction was not a reasonable barometer.

"That would probably be the response of an outsider looking in, who didn't really understand the early California art market, and didn't understand why one piece is considered great, and another mediocre," Ganz said.

The best of the three Redmonds that Christie's failed to sell, he says, was "Poppies and Lupine," which the auction house had pegged at $200,000 to $400,000. "It's a reasonable painting, a nice painting, and yes, I'm surprised it didn't sell," Ganz said. "But in October 2008 you're talking about the bottom of the market, people were freaking out" over whether the world economy would collapse. OCMA's "Silver and Gold" is a classic of the genre, he says -- "a million-dollar painting."Williamwendt

"After the first article [about the museum's sale of the paintings], I had four to five clients that day call me up, unsolicited, and say, 'I'd have paid a million'" for "Silver and Gold" alone, Ganz said. "They couldn't believe what it sold for -- and I'm not telling them it's a million-dollar painting; they're calling and telling me it's a million-dollar painting." As for OCMA's other star, Wendt's "Spring in the Canyon" (right), Ganz said, "I don't think it's necessarily a million-dollar painting, but worst-case scenario, even in this market, it's $500,000 for sure."

Another high-priced Redmond that failed to sell at the Christie's auction, "In Southern California," had been estimated at $250,000 to $450,000, Ganz said, but "it's too tonal, all kinds of browns," and represents a different style and period from "Silver and Gold." He thinks its failure to sell foretold little about any auction bidding for OCMA's Redmond. 

Ganz said the third Redmond no-sell at Christie's was a smaller painting, "California Poppies," that may or may not have been worth it's estimated price of $100,000 to $150,000.

-- Mike Boehm

Related stories:

OCMA sells paintings to private collector, prompting criticism

San Diego museum leader criticizes OCMA's sale of paintings

OCMA director won't keep art buyer's identity secret from other museums

Photos: Granville Redmond's "Silver and Gold" (top) and William Wendt's "Spring in the Canyon." Credit: Laguna Art Museum