Petersen’s auctions of its cars violate most museums’ standards
In the world of museums, selling off pieces of a collection is undertaken with great care, often prior public notice, and the singular goal of raising money to improve the collection. A Rembrandt might be sold, for instance, to expand a collection of other Dutch masters from the era.
The Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles is taking a different tack: unloading more than 100 rare and often historically important cars, in under-the-radar auctions, to finance a dramatic renovation of its building.
The strategy, museum experts say, violates the standards most museums consider central to their mission. Those ethical standards are typically set by accrediting bodies seeking to protect the public’s interest in historical preservation. Unlike some other major automotive museums, the Petersen is not accredited by the leading museum association.
Using such sales, known in the industry as deaccession, to finance capital projects is generally considered out of bounds, said Sally Yerkovich, head of the Institute of Museum Ethics at Seton Hall University.
“You are only supposed to use the proceeds from deaccession to add like items to the collection or for direct care of collections,” Yerkovich said.
Because nonprofit museums hold the items in trust for the public, most follow strict guidelines for how the proceeds should be spent, Yerkovich said. Sometimes, even state attorneys general weigh in on the propriety of the sales.
The museum has so far confirmed $8.5 million of car sales this year. The museum, which will celebrate its 20th anniversary next year, needs “to be updated and refreshed, and it takes money to do that,” said Bruce Meyer, vice chairman of the Petersen board.
Selling cars that the museum doesn’t need, or that can be borrowed from collectors or other institutions, will raise the money to reface the exterior of the Petersen and update and improve the exhibit space. The sales are aimed at expanding the museum’s mission beyond Los Angeles and Hollywood car culture to include more on French Art Deco cars, motorcycles, technology and motor sports.
The Petersen has proposed two similar designs that would dramatically reshape the facade of the museum. Designed by Kohn Pedersen Fox, the new facade would be built from a series of stainless-steel, curved ribbons meant to evoke Art Deco themes. They have received preliminary approval from the Los Angeles Planning Department.
Among the dozen cars the Petersen has already sold is a Duesenberg once owned by Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, the African-American dancer and actor who often starred with Shirley Temple in pre-World War II movies. The museum plans to sell off an additional 107 vehicles worth millions of dollars in auctions that start Aug. 1.
“It was our decision that the car was not important to our collection,” Meyer said when asked about the sale of Robinson’s car in a brief interview. “We have other Duesenbergs to select from.”
Meyer declined to answer additional questions, and museum officials have refused to release a full list of the cars being sold.
A YouTube video of the car’s sale, at Gooding & Co.'s Amelia Island auction in March, shows the car being driven onstage with images of Robinson dancing on screens above. The host introduces the car as the “Bojangles Duesenberg,” noting that it is “well-known and much admired” and carries a “great history and provenance.”
The bidding starts at $350,000 and the auctioneer exhorts the audience to higher bids by shouting, “450 for Bojangles!” He gavels the sale at $540,000, which translates to a price of $594,000 including the commission paid by the buyer.
The museum has confirmed other sales including a 1995 Ferrari F50 that went for $1.375 million. A 2006 Bugatti Veyron — the first sold in the U.S. — sold for $924,000. A 1990 Ferrari F40 fetched $715,000. Cars planned for sale include a 1963 Volkswagen Beetle — “Herbie” from one of Disney’s “The Love Bug” movies. The museum is selling Herbie because it has two of the Volkswagens used in those movies, said Terry Karges, the Petersen’s executive director.
Founded in 1994 by Robert E. Petersen, head of a publishing empire that included Motor Trend magazine, the museum has emphasized vehicles that have some connection to Southern California car culture. It is a nonprofit with a six-member board, made up mostly of car enthusiasts and collectors. Peter Mullin, who operates his own car museum in Oxnard, is the chairman. Many of the cars in the Petersen’s collection were donated to the museum.
Members of the American Alliance of Museums, the nation’s top museum association, agree to adhere to specific guidelines governing the sale of items from their collections. Although the Petersen is not a member, “a breach of the code of ethics can often sour a museum’s relationships with other institutions,” Yerkovich said. “They might not loan objects to it or collaborate with it on exhibitions.”
Most Southern California museums are members of the alliance, including big institutions such as the J. Paul Getty Museum and the California Science Center and some small facilities such as the Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology in Claremont. Other auto museums, including the Henry Ford in Dearborn, Mich., and the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Automobile Museum in Auburn, Ind., also are accredited by the alliance.
“We hope that all museums in the country will abide by the accepted museum standards,” said Dewey Blanton, a spokesman for the American Alliance of Museums. “But we are not a regulatory agency, and the only potential penalty could be from the state attorney general.”
The Duesenberg once owned by Robinson, the early African American film star, “is an important material object that would be an indication of his success and his acquirement of some of the accouterments of a Hollywood film star,” said Ryan Friedman, a film studies expert at Ohio State University.
Robinson’s duets with Shirley Temple in the mid-'30s made him a “trailblazer in the entertainment industry,” and any vehicle that he owned would be as historically important as a car driven by Clark Gable or other stars, Friedman said.
On occasion, regulators will step in and review sales by museums. According to a settlement with the New York attorney general’s office, the Metropolitan Museum of Art was required to list any sale of $50,000 or more and give advance notice of an auction if the item has been on exhibit within the last 10 years.
California Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris is “aware” of the Petersen’s sales, said spokeswoman Lynda Gledhill, but the office declined to comment beyond that. Gledhill said no one at the attorney general’s office could recall California regulators getting involved with a museum’s sale of artifacts.
Other museums notify the public about their sales. The Indianapolis Museum of Art, for example, lists on its website the item and a description, and then provides the reason for the sale, the name of the auction house and the sale price. The museum also says that “income generated through the auction of deaccessioned works of art will be reapplied toward the purchase of new works of art in each respective curatorial area.”
Kathryn Haigh, a deputy director at the Indianapolis museum, said the institution takes pains to ensure donors are kept in the loop.
“We always notify the donor if they are living,” she said, “or their descendants if we can find them.”
For the record, 9:11 a.m. July 22: A previous version of this article said the proposed facade for the museum was designed by House & Robertson Architects. Although that is the name of the firm listed on the renderings submitted to the Los Angeles Planning Department, the Petersen said the facade was designed by Kohn Pedersen Fox.
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