City Council plans to admonish campus for lost artwork

HUNTINGTON LIBRARY, ART COLLECTIONS, AND BOTANICAL GARDENS/Courtesy

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You make a mistake and attempt to correct it. When all else fails, you offer an apology for the error, take steps to avoid a repeat of the disastrous turn of events and move on.

But what happens in a city like Berkeley when its premier educational institution loses a valuable piece of artwork from a renowned painter and sculptor valued at more than $1 million?

The issue becomes the subject of a letter of admonishment Berkeley City Council will consider sending to campus and government officials this week.

If approved at the council’s Tuesday meeting, a recommendation authored by Councilmember Susan Wengraf would send a letter to UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau, Rep. Barbara Lee, Sen. Barbara Boxer and Sen. Dianne Feinstein expressing concern about the university’s “failure to recognize the importance of this significant public artwork, and the lack of oversight that allowed this valuable work to be disposed of as surplus.”

The trouble began in 2009 when the UC Berkeley Overstock & Surplus store accidentally sold a set of  carved redwood panels created by the famed Harlem Renaissance artist Sargent Johnson. The panels were originally commissioned  in the 1930s for the former California School for the Deaf and Blind, now Clark Kerr Campus, according to UC Berkeley Risk Manager Andrew Goldblatt. They were sold for $164.63 but have an estimated value of more than $1 million, according to The New York Times.  Michael Rosenfeld of the Michael Rosenfeld Gallery in New York purchased the panels and subsequently sold them to the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, Calif., for an undisclosed amount, The New York Times reported.

“It’s a great loss not to have this incredible piece of art in our town,” Wengraf said.

The proposed letter asks the chancellor to evaluate practices at the university warehouse and “institute reforms necessary to protect the public’s art” and to take steps to prevent such egregious oversights in the future.

“UC Berkeley did consider repurchasing the artwork, which our appraiser estimated at $215,000,” Goldblatt said in an email. “But given the financial constraints facing the University we could not afford the repurchase price.”

The campus has taken steps to prevent another loss by placing a second panel also created by Sargent Johnson under lock and key.  Nonetheless, Wengraf’s letter asks for a full investigation and that the university resume its efforts to reacquire the redwood panels.