Battle for the Masterpieces : The Armand Hammer-County Museum Deal: A Saga of Art, Power and Big Misunderstandings
On Jan. 21, 1988, industrialist Armand Hammer abruptly and surprisingly announced that he would build his own museum to house his art collection rather than donate it to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, as he had promised to do for years. This story is a re-creation of the events that led up to that action. Times Staff Writer Robert A. Jones based the account on interviews with the principal players in the story, as well as numerous art experts and other sources.
ARMAND HAMMER RULES the Occidental Petroleum Corp. from the 16th floor of the Oxy building in Westwood. On this same floor, all along the quiet hallways, the Armand Hammer art collection hangs from the walls. A Rembrandt here, a Renoir there, a Titian, three Van Goghs and, as they say, much more. The paintings, in a literal sense, surround the 90-year-old man who owns them. Anytime he wants, he can stick his head out the door of his office and see them, lining the corridors of Oxy’s executive suite.
Last July, Hammer invited a man named Daniel Belin to share lunch with him on the 16th floor. Daniel Belin is not a household name in Los Angeles. Yet over the last decade, with a kind of gracious determination, he has become one of the most influential persons in the Los Angeles art world. He is now president of the board of trustees of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, a position that makes him responsible for attracting money and new art to a museum that needs both.
Belin and Hammer had known each other for some time, but the relationship was not exactly a friendship. Rather, it was the peculiar bond that seems to exist only in the art world. Belin, a downtown trial attorney, wanted Hammer’s paintings for the County Museum. So he and his predecessors had courted Hammer for more than 15 years, holding formal dinners in his honor at the museum, seeking his counsel, naming him to their board. Hammer had responded favorably, making donations of several major paintings and $3 million in cash. Most important, he had promised that the whole collection would eventually follow.
As he drove to the lunch, Belin remembers, he sensed that the long courtship was about to pay off. Hammer, after all, was then 89 years old and had already signed a non-binding agreement with the museum to transfer the paintings. There remained only the matter of the deal.
Virtually every collector negotiates carefully before he hands over his prize. There is a pecking order within museums, and a collection is judged by its place in that small universe. No collector wants to be in the basement, and no museum wants its best spots filled with bad art. So deals are important and tricky. When a dedicatory plaque gets nailed to the wall of any museum, the size and location of that plaque most likely have been negotiated. The better the collection, the tougher the deal.
In Hammer’s case, according to art experts, the collection was a mixture of the very good and the merely valuable. There were Rembrandts and Renoirs, to be sure, and some were excellent. But in other cases, the paintings were secondary examples of a great artist’s work. In art circles the Hammer collection is rarely mentioned in the same breath as, say, the Norton Simon collection and its long list of masterpieces.
Still, Belin was aware of what even a secondary Rembrandt or Van Gogh would bring in today’s market. Many art experts regarded Van Gogh’s “Irises” as something less than the artist’s best, and it recently fetched $54 million at auction. Several paintings in the Hammer collection probably would sell for more on the open market than the museum could raise in a decade. To the County Museum, the Hammer collection was very important, and Belin was determined that the courtship of Armand Hammer would not end badly.
The two men settled into a small dining room just off Hammer’s corner office, and it quickly became apparent that Belin’s instinct had been right. As lunch began, Hammer’s mood was genial, expansive. He wanted to talk deals. Only a few days before, he had signed a final agreement to give his drawings collection to the National Gallery of Art in Washington. This collection had always been regarded by Hammer as separate from the paintings, and he had long talked about giving it to the National.
It was a splendid agreement, he told Belin. The National had agreed to everything, including the construction of a small chapel on the main floor that would house a Raphael drawing of the Madonna. Hammer had written a check for $1 million so the National could buy the Raphael and add it to his collection. Now the whole thing, the chapel and an adjoining gallery, would be named the Armand Hammer Collection. It would be the first gallery ever set aside for a private collection at the National.
Belin remembers the genuine look of delight on the old man’s face and felt happy for him. He also knew that it was no accident that Hammer was talking about the generous treatment he had received at the hands of another museum. Hammer was about to arrive at the real purpose of the lunch.
Hammer paused and said he wanted to duplicate his experience with the National. It was time to sign a final agreement with the County Museum. The donations would include the 100 or so paintings, plus a huge collection of prints by the French satirist Honore Daumier and a rare portfolio of scientific drawings by Leonardo Da Vinci.
But the old, non-binding agreement with the County Museum had some faults, Hammer said. There were some new conditions he wanted attached to the deal. Hammer pulled out a copy of a 39-page proposal that had been prepared by his lawyers and then began to rattle off the main points.
First, Hammer told Belin, his collection could not be dispersed throughout the museum, to mingle with other artworks. He wanted an entire floor of his own, containing several galleries that would be called the Armand Hammer Collections.
In addition, the names of any other donors must be removed from the floor where his collection hung.
Third, the museum must sacrifice its authority to sell any work within the collection. The Armand Hammer collection would remain as it was presently constituted, forever.
Belin listened and thought to himself, This is going to be tough. He believed each of Hammer’s demands either violated the museum’s established policy or its ethical standards. But he sensed that now was not the time to start the hard bargaining. He asked questions, for clarification, and then said the museum would study the written proposal. He would get back. The two men shook hands cordially.
Outside the building, Belin knew he had been squeezed hard. He was not sure just how some of Hammer’s demands could be met. Still, he thought daylight could be found. One more hard negotiation, he told himself, and the Hammer collection would be within the museum’s grasp.
He was wrong.
THE ART SHORTAGE
THESE ARE PARADOXICAL times for art museums. On one hand, the museums have been the happy beneficiaries of a national mania. People now line up for shows of paintings by the old masters the way they used to line up for the jungle ride at Disneyland. Every institution has a building program, and in Los Angeles the County Museum of Art has been transformed from a monument of placidity in Hancock Park to a lively group of buildings.
But for many museums, some art experts believe, these developments have often masked a certain emptiness within. In some cases the new exhibition halls have come to resemble grand houses without much furniture. Old art of impressive quality has become scarce, and the ability of museums to amass quality collections has grown increasingly difficult.
The crisis has been produced by a classic exercise of supply and demand. Ever more museums and collectors are chasing ever-dwindling supplies of old art. In Europe, most countries now restrict the export of old art from their borders, and the flow has slowed to a trickle. In this country, virtually all of the great, private collections amassed during the last century have been claimed by one museum or another.
“In a real sense, the collecting game is over for old master paintings and the Impressionists,” says a local museum director. “No one, ever again, is going to put together a new collection in these areas that will match the old collections. Or even come close. If you’re running a museum, your only real alternative is to find a collector who already has the goods and separate him from his collection.”
And so it is with the County Museum. As a serious institution, it has been in operation only since the 1960s. Just to compare, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York was founded in 1870. In some ways, the County Museum’s progress has been remarkable, given the late start and the lack of a large endowment. But many in the art world feel it has a way to go, and the Armand Hammer collection was going to help it get there.
MORE THAN ANY other trustee of the museum, Richard Sherwood knew Armand Hammer as elusive prey when it came to matters of art. A downtown attorney and a trustee for 22 years, Sherwood had been involved in the courtship of Hammer since its beginning. Actually, Sherwood has another image of the relationship between wealthy collectors and a pursuing museum. It is the image of a waltz, the point being to bring the dance to a graceful conclusion without undue bumping and stepping-on of toes. Sometimes the waltz goes well, sometimes not.
When Sherwood first read the written proposal from Hammer, he knew that this waltz was in for some bumping. The proposed agreement, he thought, was outrageous. As he and the other trustees quickly realized, Hammer’s written demands went beyond those he had mentioned at lunch to Belin. The proposal went on and on, but it came to something like this:
Hammer wanted a remodeling of an entire floor of the Frances and Armand Hammer Building, one of five buildings that form the museum. This building was named for the Hammers after he made his first large contribution in 1969. Under the plan, the third floor would be carved into three spaces, and the names of other donors, currently inscribed over the galleries, would be removed. The spaces would accommodate the three elements of Hammer’s collection: the paintings, prints by Daumier and the Leonardo drawings.
Everywhere, the Hammer name was to be on display. In addition to the Hammer building and the designation for the Armand Hammer Collections, the proposal called for the main entrance of the third floor to be outfitted with a full-length portrait of Hammer. Within the galleries, the Daumier prints would be called the Armand Hammer Daumier and Contemporaries Collection, and the paintings exhibit would carry the title of the Armand Hammer Collection. Each artwork in all the galleries would be credited as a donation from the Armand Hammer Foundation. A research area in the Daumier section would be known as the Armand Hammer Daumier Study Center, with funds provided by the Armand Hammer Daumier Fund.
The Leonardo portfolio was a special case. Once known as the Codex Leicester, after the English family that had owned them for several centuries, the sheets were renamed the Codex Hammer following his purchase in 1980. The proposal required the museum to use the name Codex Hammer and to call the gallery the Codex Hammer Gallery.
These galleries would be kept aloof, prohibited from mixing with other collections, and the proposal required them to have their own curatorial staff. Further, this staff--to be funded by Hammer--could not be hired or fired by the museum, but only by Hammer or the Hammer Foundation. It was, in effect, a museum within a museum.
And then there was the matter of the five paintings. Over the years Hammer has given five major paintings to the museum, including a Rembrandt, a Rubens and a Modigliani. As a courtesy, the museum has often allowed the paintings to travel with the Hammer collection on special exhibitions. But in the proposal Hammer now sought to combine the five paintings with the rest of his collection. They were to be moved permanently to the third floor and--most important of all--would revert to Hammer’s ownership in the event of a breach of the agreement. Sherwood read the document with growing amazement. Isolating a collection was an onerous demand by itself, and one that the County Museum had always resisted.
To Sherwood, it violated the museum’s need to order its own world, to group paintings in a way that revealed something other than the name of the person who donated them. And Hammer had not stopped there. The old man was asking for a deal that was roughly equivalent to the controversial Lehman arrangement at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
In 1970, investment banker Robert Lehman demanded, and got, a separate wing of the museum to house his collection of European art, plus a staff that was answerable only to the Lehman Foundation. If there was a moment when the balance of power shifted from museums to wealthy collectors, it was the moment that the Metropolitan agreed to Lehman’s demands.
The temptation for the Met, of course, was understandable. Lehman owned the greatest private art collection of his time, 3,000 works of superb quality that spanned history from the 12th Century to the 20th Century. The Lehman arrangement was a Faustian deal of magnificent proportions, and very few museum directors could say they would have rejected it. The Hammer collection was another matter.
But there was another feature of Hammer’s plan that caught Sherwood’s attention and set him brooding about the past. It involved the collection of prints by the French artist, Daumier. In Sherwood’s mind, the collection didn’t rightfully belong to Hammer in the first place; it belonged to the museum. After 13 years, Sherwood still resented the maneuver that had left the collection in Hammer’s hands.
In 1975, a man named George Longstreet offered a collection of several thousand Daumier prints to the County Museum for $250,000. The museum was enthusiastic about the purchase, and on June 4, 1975, Longstreet signed a pledge to sell the collection.
At that time, Hammer had been a trustee of the museum for about five years, largely as a result of his donations toward the Frances and Armand Hammer Building. As the negotiations with Longstreet were continuing, Hammer informed the museum that there was a new potential buyer. The potential buyer was Hammer.
Under the body of law that governs the behavior of trustees of institutions, there is a rule that covers such a situation. Roughly, it says this: Whenever a conflict arises between a trustee and his institution, the trustee is obliged to yield.
This requirement is not merely ethical, it is legal. At the time Sherwood was president of the trustees, and he, along with the other board members, knew the rule well. They could have forced Hammer to withdraw, but they did not.
The reason was the waltz. The board members were keenly aware of Hammer’s growing collection of European paintings, and the waltz leading to its acquisition had begun. A messy confrontation over the Daumier prints might end the dance, and the trustees decided the gamble wasn’t worth it.
Then Sherwood hit upon a possible solution. If Hammer wanted to buy the collection, he reasoned, fine. Let him buy it and then donate the prints to the museum. Hammer would get the credit and a tax deduction; the museum would get the prints.
Sherwood approached Hammer, and the two began some delicate negotiations. Hammer agreed to make the donation but wanted to keep the prints until his death. That wasn’t good enough for Sherwood. He wanted them more quickly, and in Sherwood’s account Hammer eventually pledged to donate the Daumier collection six months to a year after he acquired it.
There was a catch, however. For tax reasons, Hammer asked that the pledge not be put in writing. It wasn’t. Sherwood says he and Hammer shook hands on the arrangement, and Sherwood thought he was getting “a moral commitment.” To this, Hammer replies: “Absolutely not.”
At any rate, the collection was never handed over. For the next three years the two men exchanged not-entirely-pleasant notes over the delay of the donation. Finally, at a museum banquet to kick off a centennial exhibition of Daumier’s work, Hammer rose and told the assembly that he had an announcement. He would give the Daumiers to the museum--upon his death.
Sherwood was furious. Hammer was saying that he would write the Daumier donation into his will, a commitment that had no legal force and could be changed at any time. “I was dismayed by Hammer’s speech,” Sherwood wrote in a note to another trustee, saying Hammer had broken his promise to hand over the prints quickly. Sherwood even considered suing Hammer at the time. But that was in 1979, and the waltz was in full swing.
SOON AFTER HIS LUNCH at the Oxy building, Belin asked a small group of trustees to help him respond to the Hammer proposal. If there is such a thing as a Los Angeles Establishment, this committee was it. In addition to Sherwood and Belin, the members included Camilla Frost, herself a former president of the trustees; Julian Ganz, a collector of 19th-Century American art; Franklin Murphy, former chairman of Times Mirror Co., which publishes the Los Angeles Times; and Ed Carter, former chairman of the company that operates The Broadway.
It was an interesting group to be dealing with Armand Hammer. Interesting because they were so different from the man they were trying to measure. These people were all members of a certain crowd in Los Angeles, those with the social position and the personal drive necessary to build the cultural institutions of the city. They liked the idea of boosting Los Angeles and creating the museums and ballets and symphonies that would someday compete with those in New York. In this regard their success depended on one another. They worked as a team.
Hammer, on the other hand, was a maverick. He had been appointed to the museum board 17 years before but rarely attended meetings. He ran his corporation as a duchy and spent half his life on his private jet, flying from Moscow to Riyadh to Paris.
In their world Hammer was an outsider, and that may have shaped their response. Just more than a week after receiving Hammer’s proposal, the group met in the office of museum director Earl A. (Rusty) Powell. The meeting did not take long.
The committee members discovered that they had walked in the door with a virtual consensus: Hammer’s proposal was part of a dangerous pattern. Everywhere, wealthy collectors were pressing more and more outlandish demands on museums. The shift of power that had taken place as available art grew more scarce had suddenly come home to them.
The break in the dam had been the Lehman deal at the Metropolitan. Now there seemed to be no limit to what collectors would ask. In 1985, a wealthy Texas widow, Wendy Reves, demanded that the Dallas Museum of Art build a replica of her villa in the south of France in order to get a collection of Impressionist paintings. Reves wanted the villa reproduced because, she said, the art should only be seen in the setting she and her husband had created for it. And duplicate it the museum did, down to the ashtrays once used by one of the villa’s guests, Winston Churchill.
Someone had to take a stand, and the committee decided the time had come. The members divided the Hammer demands into two groups: those they would talk about with Hammer, and those they wouldn’t. The latter they referred to as “the deal breakers.”
Of the deal breakers, there were three: the independent staff for the collection; the removal of the names of other donors on the third floor, and the joining of the five paintings to the Hammer collection.
On the other hand, the committee decided it would be willing to discuss the possibility of Hammer’s getting his own galleries and showing the collection as a self-contained unit. Perhaps, the trustees thought, there was some middle ground where Hammer would allow some paintings, on some occasions, to be shown with the general collection. The exact size of the galleries was also negotiable, as was the number of times the Hammer name would appear on the museum walls.
There remained the issue of strategy. Did Hammer really believe he was another Robert Lehman, or was he shooting for the moon and expecting to negotiate downward? Had the deal with the National Gallery twisted his perspective? Ultimately, the questions were unanswerable. The committee decided they could rely on Hammer’s history as a shrewd and tenacious negotiator. They would come at him hard.
THE EARLY YEARS
ARMAND HAMMER HAS COLLECTED ART for a very long time. His first collections were put together before most members of the museum committee had been born. But as numerous biographies and articles written about him reveal, Hammer’s activities in the world of art, like so many other aspects of his life, have been enigmatic, often clouded in legends that Hammer himself has sought to perpetuate.
He first discovered art in the Soviet Union. Originally, Hammer contends, he traveled to Russia with the goal of providing medical aid to a population ravaged by famine and epidemic. That was in 1920, when Hammer had just graduated from the Columbia University Medical School and the Bolshevik revolution still had a shaky hold on the future.
At the end of his tour, Hammer was summoned to an audience with Lenin. The head of the revolutionary government thanked him for his efforts and then surprised Hammer with a business offer. Arguing that Russia needed businessmen, not doctors, Lenin said he wanted Hammer to stay in Russia to operate a pencil factory under government license. Hammer knew nothing about pencil manufacturing, but he accepted. His plans to practice medicine were abandoned, and his life altered forever.
He remained in the Soviet Union for most of the next decade, eventually asking his brother, Victor, to help, according to Hammer’s 1987 autobiography, “Hammer.” The two of them settled into a 30-room mansion in the midst of Moscow, furnishing it with treasures from the recently disenfranchised Russian aristocracy. The two men discovered that they could buy antique furniture, Faberge ornaments, icons and paintings for trifles. They had soon filled the mansion with these discards of the revolution, at one point buying what they thought was a long-lost Rembrandt for $25,000.
The Rembrandt turned out to be a fake, but the rest eventually made the Hammer brothers a fortune. When Stalin came to power, he terminated the foreign licenses and the brothers were pushed out. Hammer claims that the government offered them permission to take their collection out of the country as payment for the appropriated business. According to Hammer’s account, the brothers shipped their treasures to the United States, where, in the midst of the Depression, they sold them through department stores for $11 million.
The real situation may have been slightly different. In his book “Russian Art and American Money,” Harvard historian Robert C. Williams concluded that Hammer, rather than conducting his own fire sale, was likely operating as a commercial agent for the Soviet government. Some of the articles sold still had the official stamps of Soviet museums, and Williams notes that the Stalinist regime was desperately in need of hard currency to finance economic reforms.
Hammer himself has denied that the Soviets were involved in the sales, and the mystery of the Russian imperial treasures will probably never be solved. But Hammer’s encounter with beautiful objects had changed him. Art, and its acquisition, became a constant presence in his life.
THE TRULY SERIOUS COLLECTING, however, waited until the 1960s. At that point Hammer had accomplished the remarkable turnaround of Occidental, pushing it high on the list of the Fortune 500. The ascendance of Oxy made Hammer a very wealthy man, wealthy enough to collect in the big leagues of art.
He refers to the current group of paintings with a phrase that is typical of the man. It is the “third collection,” the first being the Russian treasures and the second a group of lesser European paintings that was donated to USC in 1965. From the beginning, the third collection was conceived as the type that only the richest men assemble: paintings from the first rank of old masters and Impressionists.
In his autobiography, Hammer writes that the “experts” told him that such a collection was impossible. “The great works, it was said, had already passed out of circulation and into the hands of the great museums,” Hammer wrote. He set out to prove them wrong.
By 1970, Hammer had put together 96 paintings, including works by Rembrandt, Rubens, Gauguin, Goya and Rouault. He was acquiring at a frenetic pace, relying largely on his own instincts and those of his brother, Victor, who now managed an art gallery in New York. The paintings were piling up, and millions had been spent, but Hammer was about to discover that mere numbers and the best names did not make a quality collection.
The embarrassment came in Washington after a show at the Smithsonian Institution in March of 1970. In fairness, Hammer had been warned. The collection had already been rejected for exhibitions at two museums--the National Gallery of Art and the National Collection of Fine Arts--before it was accepted at the Smithsonian. Hammer’s collection was hung in the Natural History Museum, next to the elephants and dinosaurs.
After the opening night, at which Hammer passed out chunks of polished jade to each guest, the show was reviewed by Paul Richard of the Washington Post. The review was all the more terrible because it was not mean-spirited but written with a sense of sad obligation.
“Never,” Richard wrote, “have so many major masters been represented in this city by canvases so poor.” The Toulouse-Lautrec, he said, was a “hack job”; the Goya, “trivial”; the Van Gogh, “ugly.”
“He has, in short, brought sweepings, as many museum directors seem to be aware,” Richard concluded.
It was the kind of review that would have broken the will of some collectors. All that energy, all those millions, and the result was humiliation. But at that point, Hammer revealed two qualities that have accounted for much of his success: tenacity and the ability to persuade others to help.
John Walker, a former director of the National Gallery, was given control over the collection. In the next few years almost half the paintings were sold and others acquired. The work went slower now, and a decade passed before the collection again reached the size of the Washington show.
The Hammer collection became respectable. Critics mostly agree that there is a good Rembrandt now, a portrait named Juno; a good Van Gogh depicting the mental hospital at Saint-Remy; a good Pissarro showing a Paris boulevard during Mardi Gras.
Respectable and yet, ironically, without much respect in the small world where such judgments are made. To a layman the criticisms may seem arcane, referring to the “mix” or the juxtaposition of painters and styles. What the criticism comes down to is this: The collection presents itself as a jumble and seems empty at its core. It does not reflect a passion for the art itself but a desire to amass the correct group of names.
“A good collection has a reason to exist,” says Henry Hopkins, the director of the Frederick Weisman Foundation, which collects contemporary art. “It reveals something, just by the way the art has been assembled. The Hammer collection has some extraordinary objects and some in the mid-range. But it has no core or purpose; it’s a group of unrelated works, spread all over the map. In that way, it’s the ideal collection to be given to a museum.”
There may be an explanation to the uneven character of Hammer’s collecting. It has to do with motive. Many of the best collectors have attributed their acquiring to an obsession with beautiful objects, a need that grows even as it is satisfied. It can become, as one collector observes, a rich man’s dope. The only fix is the acquiring of the next, elusive, beautiful thing.
If you ask Hammer why he collects, you get a very different answer. He does not talk about obsession. He talks about doing good works. The third collection was put together, he says, so he could expose the glories of art to the less fortunate. And there is evidence to support this. Hammer’s third collection has never hung in his home, an oddity that alone would make Hammer suspect to many collectors. In fact, Hammer often boasts that the only artworks hanging in his Bel-Air house are imitations of famous paintings done by his wife, Frances.
Instead he has kept his collections traveling from exhibition to exhibition at a exhausting rate. In conversations, Hammer often mentions how satisfying these exhibits have been. He describes seeing long lines forming outside museums in Beijing and Moscow, the people waiting hours to see the Armand Hammer collection. His collection. In Moultrie, Georgia, he recalls, he watched an illiterate farmer bring his young grandson to the Armand Hammer show. The farmer told him it was the biggest day of his life.
As Hammer must know, you don’t get this reaction with unknown artists. You need a Rembrandt, a Rubens, a Van Gogh, a Gauguin, even if they are not the best, even if curators sneer at them. If the Van Gogh winds up hanging next to an Andrew Wyeth, so what.
THE OLD MAN
IN PERSON, HAMMER’S MANNER seems to belie this need for recognition. He is affable and modest, remembers names, laughs easily. He peers out from behind thick lenses that enlarge his eyes. In his huge corner office, he greets people warmly but stays planted securely behind a solid, dark desk. With those eyes, huge forehead and a mouth turned in a mysterious smile, Hammer resembles nothing so much as a friendly sea turtle.
The third collection, he says, is precious to him, something he has come to love more than anything else. He talks about the crowds in Beijing. “Here I am, 90 years of age,” he says. “I wanted to leave something behind. I wanted to feel I added something to the riches of the world, not that I was just a rich man who made a lot of money.”
When he made the proposal to the County Museum, Hammer says he anticipated that he would get the same reaction he had received at the National Gallery. He had given the National his drawings, and it had established the first gallery in the museum’s history permanently dedicated to a private collection. Right there on the main floor, the Armand Hammer gallery.
“They treated me with such generosity,” he says.
“DEAR ARMAND,” THE LETTER BEGAN. “When you and I last met in your office . . . I told you that I would review your proposals. I have accomplished that review.”
Daniel Belin’s letter arrived Oct. 2, 1987, about six weeks after his lunch with Hammer. After some preliminaries, Belin reminded Hammer of his promises.
“The entire Los Angeles community expects that the Hammer collections ultimately will become a part of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art,” it said. “Your many public expressions of your intent to bequeath your collections to the County Museum have encouraged this expectation.”
Belin then waded in. Three of Hammer’s demands were unacceptable “under any circumstances,” he wrote. An independent curator would create administrative chaos; assigning the five paintings to the Hammer collection would be tantamount to giving them back; removing the names of other donors from the galleries would violate agreements with those donors.
It went on for 3 1/2 pages, and then Belin concluded: “There are a number of other substantial areas of disagreement between us, but any negotiations we pursue must start from premises consistent with the foregoing. . . . We can then proceed to the negotiation of the other points.”
It was a tough letter, a statement of sorts. The County Museum would not be strong-armed; it would not be the next museum forced to advertise the ego of a wealthy collector.
The bluntness also carried a message to Hammer. The language implied that he had overplayed his hand by a wide margin and that the committee was calling him on it. He had asked for a deal equivalent to that given to the very best collections in existence, and he didn’t have the goods. The committee members knew they were playing the game hard; they hoped that this show of strength would appeal to a man famous for his tough bargaining, a man who had struck deals with the likes of Moammar Kadafi and several generations of Russians.
The letter was shrewd, and at the same time it may have missed something. To Hammer, giving his art collection away was not business. It was everything that business wasn’t. It was the thing that won him love in Beijing and Moultrie, Georgia. Chinese boys sold their bicycles to buy tickets, and they were grateful for the chance. Hammer might bargain over the details of his gift, just as he had bargained with the National Gallery, but the bargainers could damn well be grateful for the chance. This letter was not grateful.
As Hammer read it through, he was hurt and outraged. He could find no recognition, anywhere, of the worth of the gift. Hammer had been told that the paintings, the Codex and the Daumier collection would bring $250 million if sold off at auction. Hammer thought he had been treated shabbily.
The letter arrived on Friday. Hammer stewed over the weekend, and on Monday he sent his reply to Belin.
“I was shocked by the tone and contents of your letter,” he wrote, and then described those contents as “tantamount to an ultimatum.” He reminded Belin once again of the successful deal with the National. “I am sure you are well aware of this and that I was honored by President and Mrs. Reagan as a recipient of the National Arts Medal for all I have done for the arts.” Even the President was grateful.
Hammer then got down to the details. He denied trying to establish a “museum within a museum” and said he had only wanted a curator whose sole interest was the Hammer collection. And the provisions regarding the five paintings were not an attempt to take back a gift; his desire was to hang the five paintings with his collection on the third floor, nothing else. As for the other names over the galleries, he did indeed want them taken down because he felt he had paid for the space with $3 million in contributions.
Now, several months later, Hammer maintains that the details of the debate were not what disturbed him the most. Rather, it was the betrayal that he felt, the sense that the museum trustees had no regard for his offer. At that point, Hammer contends, the long waltz with the museum was over. He began to think of other alternatives.
But there would be one last attempt to patch things up. On Oct. 8, three days after Hammer sent his letter to Belin, most of the members of the museum committee gathered in a semicircle around Hammer’s desk. As with the previous exchange, it seemed the two sides misunderstood each other. The museum committee had come hoping to put aside the rancor and settle into negotiations. To Hammer, the rancor was the issue; he wanted the committee to convince him that no real betrayal had taken place.
Hammer began. His voice was thick with emotion. He repeated what he had told Belin in writing. The letter was outrageous; he had never received a letter like that in his life. The charges were false and had twisted his intent.
The committee members answered in cooler tones. Sensing some caginess in Hammer’s attack, they pointed out that the language of the proposal itself was unmistakable. They had not misunderstood its provisions.
More than anything, they were trying to find compromise solutions. Rusty Powell turned to Arthur Groman, Hammer’s attorney, and suggested that the two of them walk through the third floor of the Hammer building soon and talk about the display possibilities. Groman agreed.
Hammer repeated that he had not intended to take back the five pictures. And he never wanted a curator independent of the museum management. In effect, two of the major issues had been resolved.
The committee then made its own offer. It was possible, they said, that the donors with names over the galleries on the third floor could be persuaded to accept other positions. They would have to be consulted first, but maybe.
It ended there. At a practical level the meeting had been remarkably successful. Of the three major issues separating Hammer and the museum, two had ceased to exist and the third was on its way to a solution.
Yet, the meeting had ended with a terrible chill. As Belin and Powell left the room, they both had the feeling that the Hammer collection was gone. And Hammer knew it was gone. He could not shake the feeling of betrayal. There had been no apology.
THE NEW MUSEUM
ON JAN. 21, 1988, Armand Hammer announced that he would build a new museum just behind the Oxy building in Westwood. The Armand Hammer Museum of Art and Cultural Center. It would be two stories of white Carrara marble with an open central courtyard. The building would contain 79,000 square feet of space and cost $30 million.
For the County Museum, 17 years of courtship had come to this. There would be no paintings, no Leonardo drawings and no Daumier collection. They had just moved five miles west. Of course, the bad news for the county was good news for Westwood. Instead of a gas station and parking lot behind the Oxy building, there would be a museum designed by one of the country’s leading museum architects, Edward Larrabee Barnes.
Unlike many private collectors hoping to erect museums of their own, Hammer said money would be no problem. Building costs would be borne by the Armand Hammer Foundation and Occidental and its operations funded by an endowment from the foundation. The museum’s opening was scheduled for sometime in 1990.
To the surprise of many, the chief political supporter for the new museum turned out to be City Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky. For years, Yaroslavsky has fought Hammer’s plan to drill for oil in the Pacific Palisades, yet on the day of the announcement the councilman joined the oilman at the press conference. The new museum, Yaroslavsky said, was just the kind of development Westwood needed, and he promised to do everything in his power to see that it was built.
Two weeks before the public announcement, Hammer sent a letter to Belin telling him of his plans. The two men had not talked since the October meeting in Hammer’s office. In the subsequent weeks, however, the two became involved in an increasingly testy exchange of letters over the Daumier collection. Belin sent Hammer copies of the museum’s original agreement to buy the collection, and of Hammer’s written promises to eventually turn the prints over to the museum. In return, Hammer produced a new affidavit from the seller, George Longstreet, with Longstreet’s statement that he could not remember promising to sell the Daumiers to the County Museum. At one point Arthur Groman, Hammer’s lawyer, wrote to Belin claiming that his letters amounted to legal arguments, and asked him to address any future correspondence to Groman. Belin refused.
In the midst of all this, the Soviet minister of culture came to town and Hammer took him on a tour of the County Museum. Their limousine pulled up, and the two men were greeted by Rusty Powell. This small group strolled slowly through the exhibits, and Hammer was warm and friendly throughout.
As the tour ended, Hammer turned to Powell and asked if the museum owned any Daumiers.
Powell, wondering if this was a joke, said no, not since the new museum was announced, anyway.
Hammer patted him on the shoulder. “I’ll send you some,” he said, climbed into the limousine and sped away.