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Welcome to L.A., Mr. Price : An Oklahoma Millionaire Follows His Japanese Art Collection West--and Southern California Gets a Major New Art Patron

July 06, 1986|ELIZABETH VENANT | Elizabeth Venant is a Times staff writer

Joe D. Price is posing for pictures in front of a 17th-Century Japanese screen before which feudal warlords once sat to receive their subjects.

A latter-day ruler of Edo art treasures from Japan, Price seems about as pleased as an ornery samurai. His chin juts forward, his gray hair swirls like an unruly wreath around his balding pate, and his sometimes venomous tongue darts out of his mouth.

"I don't know what you need so many pictures for," he chides the photographer. "I've never had so many pictures taken in my life. Before," he adds, "nobody knew I existed."

That changed in 1983, when the Oklahoma millionaire gave his collection of 300 Japanese masterpieces, worth an estimated $30 million to $40 million, to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, along with $5 million in seed money to build a pavilion to house the art. The gift, as well as construction of the pavilion, now under way, have thrust Price, 57, into the public eye.

He is greeting the attention with a mixture of truculence, ingenuousness and delight. He laughs, lobs caustic barbs, and speaks with a stammer. He likes to call himself a country boy--an Okie from the prairies--yet the way he says it reminds you that Mark Twain, Abe Lincoln and other fellows were just country boys too.

His knowledge of the long-neglected paintings of the Edo period has been widely recognized by scholars of Japanese art. Says Earl A. (Rusty) Powell, director of the County Museum: "He can spot an Edo-period screen going 90 miles an hour in a Tokyo taxicab." Price insists, however, that at the start he didn't even know he was collecting Japanese, much less Edo, art. "I just liked it. I don't know why," he says, blinking behind clear-rimmed glasses.

Price's wife, Etsuko, is Japanese, and long before he met her, he was taking off his shoes before entering his bachelor pad. "I already had a Japanese feeling, but I did not know it," he says.

But if his original attraction to Japanese art was instinctive, his collecting grew to be single-minded, surpassing the devotion of many connoisseurs.

Now his collection--which he named Shin'enkan, or "the house of the faraway heart," for the art studio of Edo artist Ito Jakuchu--is at the County Museum. And, following it, Price, Etsuko and their two young daughters have moved to Los Angeles. "My life is in the art, and I will be with the art. There's no way you can keep me away from it," he says.

After he married Etsuko in 1966 and she joined him in his Bartlesville, Okla., house, they built an adjoining museum. They slept in the museum on a futon, and a Great Dane named Kamikaze guarded the family and their art.

Price hints at a similar watchdog attitude for their lives in Los Angeles. He will not discuss his family and the house being built for them here, he says over lunch one day. "My wife's a classical Japanese person. She's not the young modern style. She likes the privacy of her home for the family. I've decided to give up my privacy, but why should I make her give up hers?"

Price is eating a ham and cheese sandwich and sipping coffee from a mug. He looks like the sort of inconspicuous, amiable chap you might meet in a diner. His trousers are baggy and flop over his loafers, his jacket is of a casual thick-napped stripe, and his tie is nondescript. Nevertheless, his shirt is from Yves Saint Laurent, and he wears a gold watch the size of a handcuff.

When he talks about his role as a tastemaker, an oilman's braggadocio pushes its way to the surface. "I'm very good at not being influenced by things that have been done before," he says. "For some reason, I have absolute confidence in being original."

He says that the pavilion, scheduled to open in 1988, "will really set this town on its ear." Its Japanese-inspired design is by the late architect Bruce Goff, who built Price's home in Bartlesville and whom he unabashedly promotes as "probably the greatest creative genius this nation has ever produced."

Between the Bartlesville-L.A. move, the family lived in Tokyo. Now they are in temporary lodgings in Los Angeles while their permanent home is under construction. This new house, Price boasts, "will be more unique than anything ever built before."

But now Price proposes a trip to Oklahoma, where he will say goodby to his Bartlesville home. He is donating it to the University of Oklahoma for use as a seminar center, and he plans to place Goff's archives there. He is flying back to give a reception for which the house will be opened to the public for the first time.

"It will be a unique experience," he promises. "Few people have ever seen a house like this before. It's one of the greatest places ever built by man."

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