Mislabeled work is museum's gain

BERKELEY, Calif. -- Everybody misplaces something sometime. But it is not easy for the University of California, Berkeley, to explain how it lost a 22-foot-long carved panel by a celebrated black sculptor, or how, three years ago, it mistakenly s...

Sargeant Johnson
A mislabeled piece of art by Sargent Jonson is now part of the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens, a museum and research center in San Marino, Calif.

BERKELEY, Calif. -- Everybody misplaces something sometime. But it is not easy for the University of California, Berkeley, to explain how it lost a 22-foot-long carved panel by a celebrated black sculptor, or how, three years ago, it mistakenly sold this work, valued at more than $1 million, for $150 plus tax.

The university's loss eventually enabled the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens, a large museum and research center in San Marino, Calif., to acquire its first major work by a black artist.

Harvey Smith, president of the National New Deal Preservation Association, called what happened a betrayal of the public trust.

"We all pay for this art, and we all own it," he said. "It's hard to imagine losing something longer than a pickup truck," he added, referring to what he called Berkeley's "amazing incompetence."

'An error of ignorance'


In correspondence with the federal government, Andrew Goldblatt, assistant risk manager for the university, described the sale of the Johnson piece as "an error of ignorance."

Johnson (1888-1967) is considered one of the finest sculptors of the Harlem Renaissance, although he spent most of his life in the Bay Area. He was never able to earn a living purely from his art, but in recent years interest in him has surged, said Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, an associate professor of American art at the University of Pennsylvania, who is writing a book on him.

In 1937, Johnson designed two large Art Deco redwood reliefs. Designed to cover organ pipes at the old California School for the Deaf and Blind in Berkeley, one of the pieces was affixed to a wall until 1980, when the school moved. The university, which had taken over the premises, moved any valuable property to a secure basement warehouse, and the organ relief was disassembled.

But one of the organ screens was misidentified, so when the university reopened the building three years later, only one of the reliefs was returned, while the other remained in storage until 2009.

Cracked panels

In summer 2009, Greg Favors, an art and furniture dealer, came upon eight cracked but still handsome panels in a plywood bin. Favors did not know what they were, but he thought them "amazing and cool," he said. He paid $164.63.

In need of a restorer, he contacted Dennis Boses, owner of Off the Wall Antiques in Los Angeles, who has been an expert on the popular A&E reality show "Storage Wars." Boses trucked the panels to his warehouse, where he restored them. He was hoping the art might fetch $10,000 to $11,000.

Meanwhile, Favors scoured the Internet searching for the artist's name.


On Oct. 16, 2009, at 9:03 a.m., he emailed Gray Brechin, a Berkeley scholar of historical geography who specializes in New Deal art, asking for help.

At 9:08 a.m., the response arrived: "You BOUGHT this? They SOLD it?" He identified Johnson as the artist and added, "I am astounded that they deacquisitioned it."

Armed with that information, Boses spoke to Michael Rosenfeld of the Michael Rosenfeld Gallery in New York, an authority on black art. Rosenfeld was relieved to learn that the piece had not been chopped for firewood or turned into a trellis. He recalled telling Boses, "In the unlikely event you get a release from the GSA, I would buy it." (Rosenfeld was referring to the General Services Administration, which is the official custodian of artwork produced under the aegis of several public programs during the New Deal and is working with the FBI to recover misplaced or stolen art and have it displayed in public locations.)

For help in getting clearance from the agency, Favors turned to his friend Bradley Long, whose email handle, bradcansell, suggests that no transaction is beyond his abilities. And Long, through his mechanic at Benz Autobody in Redwood City, Calif., met Michael L. Gabriel, a lawyer whose hobby is buying lighthouses from the General Services Administration. Gabriel found a loophole in the laws governing WPA art.

WPA art

Movable art from the WPA falls under federal jurisdiction. But according to a November 2010 e-mail from a General Services Administration lawyer to the university, which Smith of the National New Deal Preservation Association obtained last month through a California Public Records Act request, the federal government does not retain ownership of WPA art affixed to nonfederal buildings.

Jennifer Gibson, director of the General Services Administration's art in architecture and fine arts program, said in an interview that despite the ruling, her agency hoped Johnson's work would go "to an institution that provides public access."

The university hired appraisers who valued the Johnson work at $215,000 but, facing extensive budget cuts, it did not have the money to make a deal. Late last February, Rosenfeld bought the Johnson relief for what two of the partners said was $225,000.


But the art didn't even make it to Rosenfeld's New York gallery. One week after his purchase, Jessica Todd Smith, curator of American art at the Huntington Library, near Los Angeles, and John Murdoch, the museum's director of art collections, paid Rosenfeld a visit, looking for works to fill their newly expanded American galleries.

Goldblatt, the university's risk manager, said, "We're terribly sorry it happened but very happy about the result": that art that once belonged to the public will be back on public display. The other Johnson relief is locked in a Berkeley conference room and may be seen by the public -- only upon request.

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