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 lawyerwhose 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.”