There’s a lot of outrage in this NYTimes story about a misplaced Harlem Renaissance work that was sold the Huntington Museum despite having been owned by the University of California, Berkeley. More over, the work was sold for $150 as surplus from the University’s own surplus shop.
Beyond the anger there’s a fascinating story about how objects are found and then find their way to the right owners. In this case, the Huntingon got something needed for its collection at a below market price.
The university’s embarrassing 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 an African-American artist.
The circuitous tale of Sargent Johnson’s huge redwood relief involves error, chance and a partnership of unlikely art-world figures, including an art and furniture dealer who stumbled upon the panels at the university’s surplus store; an antiques dealer who was on a first-name basis with Michael Jackson and his chimp Bubbles; and a lawyer whose hobby is buying lighthouses and who convinced the government that even though the art was commissioned by the Works Progress Administration, it could still be sold publicly.
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.”