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This Miró masterpiece will be sold to the highest bidder. It belongs in a museum instead

This Miró masterpiece will be sold to the highest bidder. It belongs in a museum instead
Joan Miró's brightly painted bronze sculpture "La caresse d'un oiseau (detail)," conceived in 1967 and cast during the artist's lifetime, was assembled from a donkey's straw hat, an outhouse seat and other found objects. (Christie's)

In the space of a few minutes Tuesday night, expect the auction hammer at Christie’s in New York to fall successfully on the sale of Joan Miró’s monumental, totemic bronze sculpture of a woman, “La caresse d’un oiseau” (A bird’s caress). The sale will be an appalling sight.

Why? Odds are the masterpiece will disappear into a private collection.

That’s horrific, because for the last 30 years, the Miró has been a public sculpture standing in the atrium of a downtown Los Angeles corporate tower on Bunker Hill. This week, it will be fully uncoupled from the civic realm, sold off to the highest bidder. A magnificent public amenity will be privatized because few museums have the financial wherewithal to compete at auction.

And the Miró is not the only one. On Thursday, a second important sculpture with the same Bunker Hill lineage also will go on the block. This time, it’s Jean Dubuffet’s “Le Dandy,” a big, shambling figure of a comic urban rake standing more than 10 feet tall.

Both sculptures were part of a publicly mandated art program initiated by L.A.’s Community Redevelopment Agency in the early 1980s. Now, they are being steamrolled by our New Gilded Age. Like the Miró, the public life of the Dubuffet is being traded in for cash.

Joan Miró
Joan Miró, "La caresse d'un oiseau," a painted bronze conceived in 1967 and cast during the artist's lifetime, goes to auction at Christie's along with paintings by Picasso and Chagall. Don Emmert / AFP / Getty Images
Jean Dubuffet
Jean Dubuffet, "Le Dandy," 1973-82, polyurethane paint on epoxy resin Christie's

Many cities have used art as a means for helping to invigorate tired urban neighborhoods. Part of the trade-off for civic assistance in large-scale private developments was a requirement for creating public amenities, including plazas, gardens, seating areas and other features — especially art.

L.A.'s redevelopment agency required developers to pay an add-on fee of 1% of project design and construction costs to create or install public artworks at their sites. The Miró and the Dubuffet — together with sculptures by Louise Nevelson, Nancy Graves and Robert Graham — were part of the $400-million Crocker Center development on Grand Avenue. A project of Maguire Thomas Partners, the pair of skyscrapers were joined together by an expansive, two-level atrium designed by famed landscape architect Lawrence Halprin.

CRA/LA ceased to function in 2012. But, according to the CRA contract with Maguire Thomas obtained by The Times, title for the art remains with the building’s owner.

Crocker merged with Wells Fargo in 1986, and the building has changed ownership more than once. New York-based Brookfield Office Properties acquired the complex five years ago, and, as part of a $60-million refurbishment plan, began demolition of Halprin’s atrium design early this year — infuriating the Los Angeles Conservancy.

Halprin died in 2009. Reportedly, this was the celebrated landscape designer’s only interior concourse plan.

Remarkably, no permanent public protections seem to exist for the art. The 1984 CRA contract mandating the developer’s public art responsibilities came with a 30-year expiration date — in this case, ending April 21, 2014. So there appears to be no legal impediment to Brookfield’s liquidation of the public’s art for purely private gain.

And the gain will be substantial. The Spaniard’s work is estimated to sell for between $6 million and $8 million, the Frenchman’s for between $1 million and $2 million.

It is — or was — the only Miró painted sculpture in Los Angeles. That it will not live on permanently in a museum here is scandalous.

The prices paid in the 1980s for the Miró and the Dubuffet are not stated in the contract. But Stephanie Barron, senior curator of modern art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, who, with former LACMA (and now National Gallery of Art) Director Earl A. Powell III, originally consulted on the plan, said the entire budget for seven works by five artists was but a small fraction of what these two works alone will likely fetch in today’s galloping market.

The Miró masterpiece, conceived in 1967 and one of four bronze casts completed before the artist’s 1983 death at age 90, is the greater loss. Dubuffet died in 1985, making the Wells Fargo project among the last ostensibly permanent public installations of the two artists’ works during their lifetimes.

Miró, living in difficult circumstances in Palma, Majorca, during World War II, scavenged his materials during daily walks. “La caresse d’un oiseau” was cobbled together from a donkey’s straw hat for the head, an outhouse seat and ironing board for the torso and legs, a rock with a clay crescent for the bird perched on top and, for the totem’s genitals, an inverted shell of a tortoise. The winsome assemblage slowly decayed, leading the artist to decide in the 1960s to transform it into vividly painted bronze.

Usually, Miró’s bronze sculptures carry a conventional patina. But “La caresse d’un oiseau” is brightly painted in solid primary colors, one per shape. The thinness of its assembled forms adds another layer of graphic transformation — this one between actual found objects and a two-dimensional painting.

It is — or was — the only Miró painted sculpture in Los Angeles. That it will not live on permanently in a museum here is scandalous.

The Miró and the Dubuffet would be great additions to the collection at LACMA or, almost directly across the street from its longtime home on Bunker Hill, at the Museum of Contemporary Art, itself built through a CRA funding innovation. The donor could have taken a hefty tax deduction for the gifts — a win for everyone in the community.

Why the company chose instead to cash in is a mystery. (According to a Brookfield spokesman, the sculptures by Nevelson, Graves and Graham may or may not remain, and no explanation was offered for liquidating the others.) While the company might not face any legal impediments for the sale, it has breached the moral responsibility embodied in the publicly mandated and subsidized percent-for-art requirement that brought the great Miró and Dubuffet to Los Angeles in the first place.

Now, one cannot help but wonder: Of the more than 200 public works of art initiated by the CRA, how many are likewise in jeopardy of conversion from public amenity to developer’s windfall? This week’s Miró and Dubuffet auctions are a scandal, but they are also a cautionary tale. Shouldn’t the city do something to intervene?

christopher.knight@latimes.com

Twitter: @KnightLAT

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UPDATES:

6 p.m. May 16: An earlier version of this column said artworks by Nevelson, Graves and Graham will remain at the Wells Fargo site. A spokeswoman for building owner Brookfield Office Properties said Wednesday that the future of those other sculptures has not yet been determined.

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