Berkeley Loses and Then Sells Artwork Valued at $1 Million for Less Than $200

A redwood relief carved by Sargent Johnson. (Photo: Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens via The New York Times)

What’s being referred to as a “huge scandal” has befallen the artistic world. But no need to fret, it has a happy ending. Carved redwood panels by African American artist Sargent Johnson were not only lost for 25 years, but when they were found they were accidentally sold for less than $200, even though the art is valued at more than $1 million.

The Daily Californian (via UWire) reports that the artwork was originally commissioned in the 1930s as organ screens for the California School for the Deaf and Blind as part of the Work in Progress Administration, which was part of the New Deal. From there the screens were lost in the 1980s when the school began renovation. It is even reported that they were “feared stolen” by University of California-Berkeley officials. But, in 2009, the panels were found among plywood storage bins. Greg Favors, a furniture and art dealer according to the Daily Californian who discovered the panels, offered $165 for them.

Since then, it has passed through a few hands, is now valued at more than $1 million, and in 2014 will have a permanent exhibit at the The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens. The New York Times reports that before it was sold last February for less than its value to Huntington, the 22-foot carving was restored and it was at this time, Favors began to learn its true value:

In need of a restorer, [Favors] contacted Dennis Boses, owner of Off the Wall Antiques in Los Angeles, who has provided eye-popping objects for celebrities like Jackson and for flashy restaurants including the Hard Rock Cafe and Planet Hollywood, and who has been an expert on the popular A&E reality show “Storage Wars.” Mr. Boses trucked the panels to his warehouse in North Hollywood, where he restored them. He was hoping the art might fetch $10,000 to $11,000.

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

On Oct. 16, 2009, at 9:03 a.m., he e-mailed 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 Sargent Johnson as the artist and added, “I am astounded that they deacquisitioned it.”

Berkeley Loses and Then Sells Artwork Valued at $1 Million for Less Than $200

Sargent Johnson working on a carving in the 1940s. (Photo: San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library via The New York Times)

Knowing this, Favors contacted Michael Rosenfeld, who owns a gallery bearing his name in New York. Rosenfeld said he would buy it if he got approval from the General Services Administration to sell. Favors was approved to sell the artwork by GSA, which said in 2010 it doesn’t ownership over WPA art that was associated with non-federal buildings. The New York Times reports that Berkeley tried to buy the piece, which was appraised at $215,000, but couldn’t due to limited budget. Rosenfeld purchased the panels last February for $225,000. Rosenfeld then quickly resold the piece for “considerably less” than what he says is its $1 million value because he felt it should be in a museum, according to the Times.

Even still, Berkeley has come under strong criticism for its treatment of the artwork:

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.”

“It’s astounding,” he said.

The Times reports Berkeley’s assistant risk manager, Andrew Goldblatt, as saying the circumstances that happened with the artwork was “an error of ignorance” and that while the university is sorry, it is “very happy about the result”.