Laguna museum hopes to beg or buy 18 paintings OCMA sold privately


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It’s not an art world whodunit, but a whoboughtit.

As in, who’s the private collector who dealers specializing in early 20th Century California Impressionist paintings say got a fabulous buy on 18 pieces that the Orange County Museum of Art sold in March because the museum no longer shows and collects works from that period?

And who should Bolton Colburn, director of the Laguna Art Museum, which does show and collect what’s often also called plein air painting, call to beg or dicker with? Colburn said Monday that he still hopes to secure the return of the cache of paintings to the Laguna museum, which he sees as the works’ historically, aesthetically and spiritually proper repository.


‘There are not that many people who could have bought it,’ Colburn said, based on OCMA director Dennis Szakacs’ revelation that the buyer, whom OCMA promised anonymity, is someone in Laguna Beach who has championed plein air painting and has a track record of loaning art to museums. ‘There are three or four individuals we know about, although there are always people with wherewithal ... who are under the radar.’

Whether by radar, sonar, bloodhound or an introduction from Szakacs -- whom Colburn and another Orange County museum director, Jean Stern of the Irvine Museum, have criticized for OCMA’s decision to sell the works quietly and privately without giving their institutions a chance to bid -- Colburn knows what he wants to say to the owner of the trove that includes two much-coveted paintings: William Wendt’s ‘Spring in the Canyon’ and Granville Redmond’s ‘Silver and Gold.’

‘I would just say, `Would you consider giving these things to the museum?’’ Colburn said, envisioning a philanthropic response to his argument that they were in the Laguna museum’s collection for many years, donated by the artists or their friends and heirs, and that, in some cases, including ‘Spring in the Canyon,’ they depict scenes of Laguna Beach.

Plan B would involve cash, on the order of $1 million. ‘The second appeal,’ Colburn said, ‘would be, ‘Geez, if we could rake together the money, would you sell for what they were purchased for?’ There are a few deep pockets who could put in money. The whole town could get involved, believe me.’

Whitney Ganz, director of William A. Karges Fine Art in L.A., contacted The Times on Monday, adding his voice to those astonished that OCMA let the 18 works go for $963,000, when the two star attractions alone, in their opinion, should have fetched $1.5 million or more. ‘The prices they brought are ridiculously low,’ Ganz said. He noted that a smaller, lesser Redmond, showing poppies growing by a lake, brought $542,000 at an April auction at Bonhams & Butterfields in L.A. ‘It’s a very nice painting, but the one OCMA sold is an icon, a major, major painting.’ Like Colburn and L.A. dealer George Stern (brother of the Irvine Museum director), Ganz thinks an auction of ‘Silver and Gold’ alone could have yielded more than OCMA received for all 18 paintings, and that several others in the group were worth $100,000 or more.

Overall, the dealer said, ‘They left a ton of money on the table.’

Szakacs, responding to questions by e-mail Monday from Europe, where he is researching possible new acquisitions of the post-1950 art that is OCMA’s focus, said that the museum reaped just the $963,000, and ‘not...any promised gifts of art, money or property’ on top of the cash. ‘The sale was based on both fair price (as determined by our three estimates) and the museum’s desire to keep the works in the community’ by selling to a buyer in Orange County rather than risking an auction that could have dispersed them.


Asked whether the buyer had a previous connection to OCMA, Szakacs wrote, ‘I can confirm for you that the buyer has had no previous contact with the museum as a past donor, supporter, board member or member of a committee of the museum. This was very important to ensure an arm’s-length transaction and keep within ethical guidelines.’

OCMA has no plans to sell -- deaccession, in museum parlance -- any other works from its collection, Szakacs added.

The Irvine Museum’s Stern said that his museum, which can borrow freely from the extensive private collection of California Impressionists of its founder, Joan Irvine Smith, said he, too, wants to find out who bought the OCMA paintings -- not so much to acquire them, but rather for scholarly reasons. The Irvine Museum regularly publishes books on artists in the genre, and has comprehensive volumes in the works on Guy Rose and Franz Arthur Bischoff, whose paintings also are presumed to be among those OCMA sold. The buyer’s identity would be needed to publish a thorough provenance, or history of ownership, Stern said.

Stoking the controversy over OCMA’s deaccession is some contentious history. OCMA was created from the 1996 merger of the Newport Harbor Art Museum in Newport Beach, and the Laguna Art Museum. Some art lovers in Laguna, which traces its history as an art colony to Wendt and other major figures of California Impressionism, sued to undo the merger. Eventually, the Laguna Art Museum was reconstituted as a new institution that claims the historic legacy of the namesake one that had been merged out of existence, and operates in the same building. It also received some of the assets that had been tied up in the merger. But 20 California Impressionist works remained with OCMA, among them the 18 that Szakacs said were sold in late March. It remained unclear Monday which two were not sold, and why.

Countering Colburn’s contention that OCMA should have given the Laguna Art Museum a chance to buy the recently sold paintings, Szakacs noted that in 2004, OCMA ‘gifted’ 3,372 works to the Laguna museum, including about 600 paintings, of which perhaps 100 were plein air works. But there’s not much agreement on that, either: Colburn said that what happened in 2004 was a ‘settlement agreement’ that Szakacs ‘is not supposed to be talking about and neither am I.’ Asked whether it was accurate to characterize the works that went from OCMA to the Laguna Art Museum in 2004 as a gift, Colburn said ‘no comment’ and chuckled. He said the settlement stemmed from remaining ‘legal underpinnings’ from the 1990s merger.

-- Mike Boehm

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