$45-Million Art Collection Destroyed


The destructive Oakland fire consumed an extensive private collection of California art valued as high as $45 million.

About 800 paintings were lost in a home shared by collectors Walter A. Nelson-Rees and James L. Coran. Among the most valuable pieces was an 1872 scene of San Francisco Bay by Albert Bierstadt, whose work has sold for as much as $2.6 million at auction.

“They had No. 1 works by so many artists that can’t be replaced, this is a major loss to the American art world,” said San Rafael dealer John Garzoli.


The collection surveyed major artists of California in the 19th and early 20th centuries, including multiple examples by some of the better artists, said Harvey Jones, curator at the Oakland Museum. Artists represented include Thomas Hill, Maynard Dixon, William Alexander Coulter, Arthur Matthews and William Hahn.

Part of the collection was due to begin touring museums next week, but only a few pieces were out of the house at the time of the fire, said Marc D’Estout, director of the Monterey Peninsula Museum.

“The collectors were active and they recently added some things, so that makes the loss doubly sad,” Jones said.

The collection was uninsured, as is often true of valuable art holdings. Insurance premiums for replacement value are so costly that collectors and museum directors generally believe the money is better spent on preventive measures.

Nelson-Rees and Coran began collecting art as a hobby, but they became so engrossed in the pursuit that they became full-time art dealers. They were well connected in the museum world and often loaned works to special exhibitions.

About five years ago Nelson-Rees and Coran decided to focus exclusively on California art and build an important collection from the 19th and early 20th centuries. They documented their accomplishment in 1989 in an illustrated catalogue, “If Pictures Could Talk,” and sent their collection on a national tour.


The Nelson-Rees and Coran collection was exhibited widely in galleries and small museums in the Bay Area. About 60 pieces, insured for more than $1 million, were shown last year at the Monterey Peninsula Museum.

“I remember some of those paintings so vividly, I can’t imagine that they are gone,” museum director Marc D’Estout said.

A museum publication described the show as “an exploration of our California art heritage” which reveals “the richness of the region’s painters and the various manners and styles used to interpret the natural beauty of our land.”