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Denver, Seattle museums put artworks on the line in Super Bowl wager

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If the Seattle Seahawks' ferocious defense isn't enough to make Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning sweat on Super Bowl Sunday, how about the prospect of allowing a city's museum-goers to get thrown for another loss?

Besides the Vince Lombardi Trophy, a sterling silver football on a pedestal, and immeasurable bragging rights, the teams will be playing for the artistic gratification of their respective citizens, thanks to a bet between the directors of the Seattle Art Museum and Denver Art Museum.

The stakes are pointedly emblematic. If the Seahawks win, fans in the great Northwest will be able to come out of the rain for a look at Frederic Remington's 1895 bronze sculpture, "The Broncho Buster," which the Denver Art Museum will be compelled to ship west on a three-month loan.

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But if Manning should punctuate the greatest season a National Football League quarterback ever had by plucking the Seahawks' feathers on Sunday, the Denver Art Museum will bag a trophy bird — an eagle perched beside the sea with outstretched wings depicted in "Sound of Waves," a 12-foot-wide drawing on screen panels done in 1901 by Japanese artist Tsuji Kako.

The Seattle Museum originally announced it would stake a 135-year-old Nuxalk tribal bird mask whose menacing beak and fierce eyes bear some kinship to the Seahawks' angry-bird logo, but a spokeswoman said that a switch was made out of respect for the Nuxalk Nation, which requested that the ceremonial object not be used in a Super Bowl wager.

In two previous Super Bowls, Manning led the Indianapolis Colts to victory over the Chicago Bears in the 2007 game but lost in 2010 to the New Orleans Saints. That 31-17 defeat had consequences for museum-goers in the competing cities.

Art lovers in the Big Easy got to enjoy one of the Indianapolis Art Museum's finest treasures, J.M.W. Turner's "The Fifth Plague of Egypt," a 4-by-6-foot canvas from 1800 that shows a landscape of dark, roiling clouds gathering oppressively above a distant pyramid that's gleaming white for the moment, but clearly is in as much trouble as a quarterback whose pass protection has broken down.

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It was hung for three months at the New Orleans Museum of Art, next to the painting that would have gone to Indianapolis had Manning and his team triumphed — Claude Lorrain's idyllic 1644 landscape, "Ideal View of Tivoli."

According to a subsequent blog post by Leslie Anderson, a staffer at the Indianapolis museum, the bet between its then-director, Maxwell Anderson, and E. John Bullard, the long-tenured New Orleans museum director who retired in 2011, had been proposed by art blogger Tyler Green and made perfect art-historical sense: Turner admired Lorrain so much that when he willed two other paintings to the National Gallery in London, he specified that the bequest would be contingent on his canvases hanging in perpetuity beside works by Lorrain.

In 2011, the Milwaukee Art Museum and Pittsburgh's Carnegie Museum of Art continued the Super Bowl art-wagering. The Packers scored a three-month loan of Pierre-Auguste Renoir's "Bathers With Crab," bringing four fetching nudes to the Milwaukee museum, which had staked Gustave Caillebotte's painting, "Boating on the Yerres."

Museums sat on the sidelines, no art riding on the outcome, as the New York Giants bested the New England Patriots in the 2012 Super Bowl, and the Baltimore Ravens conquered the San Francisco 49ers last year.

Four New Yorkers did get a behind-the-scenes tour of Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 2012 — part of a package of goodies in a two-night tourist stay for four that was wagered by Boston Mayor Thomas Menino against New York City's Michael Bloomberg, who included a tour of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's American wing.

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This year's art bet between Denver Art Museum Director Christoph Heinrich and Seattle Director Kimerly Rorschach seems particularly head-on. If the Seahawks win, Seattle will view with satisfaction Remington's 2-foot-high depiction of a rearing bronco being whipped into submission.

If the Broncos prevail, fans who flock to the Denver Art Museum can relish having triumphed over an imposing bird, although it's an eagle rather than a Seahawk — "Seahawks" being a made-up species not recognized by ornithology.

For Bronco fans, it might be just as well that the mask of a fierce-looking raven, honored in Native American lore as a trickster spirit, was withdrawn. Last year, Manning and the Broncos had all but wrapped up a trip to the Super Bowl when those tricksters from the East, the Ravens, took advantage of two astonishing Denver misplays and qualified for the big game, where they held off the 49ers.

Ashley Pritchard, a Denver Art Museum spokeswoman, said the Seattle museum proposed the bet, "and we were excited to get on board." The Denver Art Museum will bathe itself in orange light on Friday, she noted — the Broncos' hue.

Los Angeles has long been without an NFL team, but if it's any comfort, when it comes to museum-going, Angelenos can enjoy much the same payoff as victorious Seattle fans stand to gain. The Autry National Center of the American West in Griffith Park has one of the 65 original casts of Remington's "Broncho Buster" on display in its Art of the West gallery.

One Autry holding, not currently on display, would be ideal for some future L.A. football wager with Seattle — "Raven Transformation Mask," a 2010 double-headed glass sculpture by Tlingit artist and Washington state resident Preston Singletary, is a near-ringer for the Seahawks' team logo.

"He's probably more inspired by his ancestry than the Seahawks' logo," said Autry chief curator Amy Scott, who likes the idea of museums in Super Bowl cities putting their art where their rooting hearts are.

Scott said the Autry should have plenty of chips to wager if L.A. ever gets a team and that team makes it to the Super Bowl. "The NFL is rife with western icons. We have a lot of Buffalo Bill imagery, cowboys, 49ers. … We could cover a lot of bets for sure."

mike.boehm@latimes.com

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