This year, Los Angeles has lost three of its leading art collectors, as actor Dennis Hopper, gallery director Robert Shapazian and computer pioneer Max Palevsky all died within two months of each other. Now, the city is poised to lose the bulk of their collections as well, as Christie's is selling some 350 artworks from their estates starting this week.
Expected to bring close to $100 million, these artworks are sure to be dispersed to buyers across the country and beyond. Some of the most prized pieces, slated for Christie's big contemporary sale Nov. 10, include a 1987 Basquiat painting owned by Hopper, which the auction house estimated will sell for $5 million to $7 million; Roy Lichtenstein's 1964 "Girl in Mirror" from Palevsky, estimated at $3 million to $4 million; and Andy Warhol's 1962 "Campbell's Soup Can (Tomato)" from Shapazian, estimated at $6 million to $8 million.
In the trade, these kinds of historically important works are called museum pieces. But they have not been bequeathed to Los Angeles museums, which depend heavily on such gifts for their growth.
Following May's auctions of the estates of L.A. writer Michael Crichton and arts patron Frances Brody, which saw a $28.6-million Jasper Johns' American flag and a $106.5-million Picasso painting leave Christie's for private hands, the upcoming sales raise questions about arts philanthropy in Southern California. Why aren't more works, many of which are too expensive for museums to buy on the open market, going to local institutions?
Deborah McLeod, who has worked with several of these collectors as director of Gagosian Beverly Hills, calls the exodus of artwork "a failure of our culture."
"Unlike the East Coast, where a number of big families have the tradition of giving," she says, "there just isn't an ingrained philanthropic culture of supporting museums here in Los Angeles. You've heard people say we're a one-philanthropist town, with Eli Broad, and that's not so far off."
L.A. gallery owner Louis Stern adds that museums can hardly compete with auctions now that art, especially contemporary art, routinely achieves such high prices. "Who's going to donate an artwork when you are promised millions at market?
"The idea of selling at auction is incredibly seductive," he adds. "The auction houses are extremely well organized, they make it their business to know all the trusts and estates lawyers. They've taken on this sort of quasi-official role in the art world — almost like a bank."
For Christie's, which has an active office in Los Angeles, this influx of material marks a competitive advantage over longtime rival Sotheby's. It's also a testament to L.A.'s growing art scene. "We're seeing a generation of L.A. collectors, who started in the 1960s, coming of age," says Laura Paulson, deputy chairman of Christie's Americas.
Several local museum officials declined to comment on what for them can be a sensitive topic, given their need to cultivate art collectors as donors. They also noted that it's hard to generalize about estates, since some collectors, such as Shapazian and Palevsky, make donations to local museums before their deaths.
It's certainly true that every estate has its own story, at least as complicated as the collector himself. Some estates, such as those of Crichton and Hopper, have several heirs vying for pieces of the pie. Some, such as Palevsky's, have already been significantly reduced by gifts of all kinds. Other estates are rich in art but poor in cash.
Peter R. Stern, a New York attorney who specializes in art-world litigation, says the decision to donate typically originates with the collector. Executors and trustees "have to live within the terms of the will or trust instrument," he says, noting that it would be "very rare" for one to allow discretionary charitable donations.
Trustees often do, however, determine when and where to sell, and Peter Stern says they favor auctions over galleries for the sake of financial accountability: "To sell at public auction is arguably by definition the fair market value of the property, so heirs can't complain that the work was sold for too little." Auctions also appeal to estates under pressure to raise money quickly (even though the lapse of federal estate taxes this year might take some pressure off). "If you sell privately, there's no way of telling how long it will take," he says.
Alex Hitz, a trustee for the Hopper estate, says the actor himself decided to liquidate his collection, excluding what Hitz calls Hopper's "self-created art." "Dennis' will mandates that everything be sold," says Hitz, "and he was very excited by the idea of a single-owner auction."
(As to why Christie's beat out Sotheby's, Hitz says only, "It was a better fit." Others say it boils down to Christie's aggressive financial packages and a stronger presence in L.A.)
What will happen to the art made by Hopper? "We're taking a breath with that to figure out the best way to proceed," Hitz says, adding that there is a museum gift coming: "The trust has already identified a couple of works that MOCA is interested in."
Jeffrey Deitch, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, confirmed that he is in "active discussions" with the estate. He declined to comment on the fact that a 1963 Duchamp "readymade" featured this summer in MOCA's Hopper exhibition goes up for sale next month with a $40,000 to $60,000 estimate.
In the case of Palevsky, who has up for sale 250 objects estimated at $53 million to $78 million, ranging from Roman antiquities to sculptures by Alexander Calder and Donald Judd, the collector made numerous donations to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art during his life. As the museum's decorative arts head, Wendy Kaplan, writes in the Christie's catalog, his gifts "are the reason LACMA has one of the country's great collections of decorative arts from the turn of the last century: He donated more than 500 objects over the past twenty years."
As for decorative art objects getting away, Kaplan says, "they are great, but they weren't needed for our collection," noting that Palevsky gave her a choice of 45 objects just two years ago.
What about all his other art heading to auction, starting with a prints sale Tuesday. Kaplan admits there are works "the museum would have loved to own — who wouldn't want one of those fabulous Donald Judd stacks? But I think we are very grateful for what we are getting."
Shapazian also arranged several gifts before his death, with hundreds of photographs of the annual pilgrimage to Mecca going to the Getty Research Institute and four Kazimir Malevich drawings to LACMA. Earlier this month, Shapazian's estate announced a few new gifts, led by Warhol's "Small Crushed Campbell's Soup Can (Beef Noodle)" from 1962 and one of his 1964 Brillo Boxes. They are going to the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.
Given its strengths in historic British painting, the Huntington, which will also receive an undisclosed amount of money from Brody's estate, is not the most obvious choice for Warhol works. (MOCA, meanwhile, has no iconic Warhol painting.) But Huntington president Steven S. Koblik says his new, spacious American art galleries made the difference.
"Robert was very interested in the Huntington, because he knew his gift would play an important role in the story we're trying to tell about American art," he says. "The bigger and more famous the museum is, the more things they have in the basement. We have very little art that is in storage."
Koblik describes negotiations between museums and potential donors as a delicate dance, with a museum's interest being "to maintain maximum flexibility" in deciding if, when and where to hang works, while collectors "want to see their hard work rewarded and see their art hanging on the walls."
According to one collector's heir, speaking on condition of anonymity out of concern for his family's legacy, the dread of museum storage can even be incentive to sell at auction. "Many people don't give to museums for fear that the work will end up in storage. So sending it out into the world, where it is purchased by people who want it, more or less ensures that it will be lived with."