After misplacing and accidentally selling a 22-foot long carved set of panels valued at over $1 million for less than $200 to a small-time art dealer, UC Berkeley officials said they could not afford to repurchase the artwork.
The carved redwood panels, sculpted by renowned African American artist Sargent Johnson, were originally designed as organ screens for the old California School for the Deaf and Blind, as part of the Work Progress Administration under the New Deal in the 1930’s, said UC Berkeley Risk Manager Andrew Goldblatt in an email.
When the UC Board of Regents bought and renovated the school in the early 1980s and renamed it the Clark Kerr Campus, the panels were misplaced in storage and “feared stolen” for 25 years, Goldblatt said in the email.
But the panels resurfaced in 2009 — after falling into the hands of the campus’ surplus storage and lodged in plywood bins for years — when Greg Favors, an art and furniture dealer, discovered them. While he did not know who the artist was or the worth of the artwork, Favors shelled out about $165 for the artwork, according to The New York Times.
Johnson’s artwork was sold to The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens last spring and will be permanently on public display after storage space is converted into gallery space in 2014, said Thea Page, special projects coordinator at the library, in an email.
“It’s a huge scandal,” said Harvey Smith, project advisor to the Living New Deal Project and president of the National New Deal Preservation Association. “It never should have happened.”
Favors restored the artwork, which was found cracked, and emailed Gray Brechin, a visiting scholar in geography at UC Berkeley and project scholar for the Living New Deal. Hoping that Brechin would know who the artist was, Favors emailed him photographs of the panels.
“When I saw the photographs that the dealer emailed me, I was just astonished,” Brechin said, adding that he knew immediately it was Johnson’s work. “It was an act of sheer stupidity by the university.”
The campus did not know the painting had been sold, much less for a few hundred dollars, until Brechin contacted UC Berkeley administration after Favor’s email.
“UC Berkeley did consider repurchasing the artwork, which our appraiser estimated at $215,000,” Goldblatt said in the email. “But given the financial constraints facing the University we could not afford the repurchase price.”
Last February, the artwork was sold to art dealer Michael Rosenfeld for $225,000, who was negotiating the sale of the panels to The Huntington Library within a week. The panels were then valued at more than $1 million, though they were sold for considerably less, according to the Times.
“The tragedy is that it was lost from its original home, which was at the Clark Kerr Campus, and it should have remained in Berkeley,” Smith said.