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Battle for the Masterpieces : The Armand Hammer-County Museum Deal: A Saga of Art, Power and Big Misunderstandings

May 22, 1988|ROBERT A. JONES | Robert A. Jones is a Times staff writer.

On Jan. 21, 1988, industrialist Armand Hammer abruptly and surprisingly announced that he would build his own museum to house his art collection rather than donate it to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, as he had promised to do for years. This story is a re-creation of the events that led up to that action. Times Staff Writer Robert A. Jones based the account on interviews with the principal players in the story, as well as numerous art experts and other sources.

ARMAND HAMMER RULES the Occidental Petroleum Corp. from the 16th floor of the Oxy building in Westwood. On this same floor, all along the quiet hallways, the Armand Hammer art collection hangs from the walls. A Rembrandt here, a Renoir there, a Titian, three Van Goghs and, as they say, much more. The paintings, in a literal sense, surround the 90-year-old man who owns them. Anytime he wants, he can stick his head out the door of his office and see them, lining the corridors of Oxy's executive suite.

Last July, Hammer invited a man named Daniel Belin to share lunch with him on the 16th floor. Daniel Belin is not a household name in Los Angeles. Yet over the last decade, with a kind of gracious determination, he has become one of the most influential persons in the Los Angeles art world. He is now president of the board of trustees of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, a position that makes him responsible for attracting money and new art to a museum that needs both.

Belin and Hammer had known each other for some time, but the relationship was not exactly a friendship. Rather, it was the peculiar bond that seems to exist only in the art world. Belin, a downtown trial attorney, wanted Hammer's paintings for the County Museum. So he and his predecessors had courted Hammer for more than 15 years, holding formal dinners in his honor at the museum, seeking his counsel, naming him to their board. Hammer had responded favorably, making donations of several major paintings and $3 million in cash. Most important, he had promised that the whole collection would eventually follow.

As he drove to the lunch, Belin remembers, he sensed that the long courtship was about to pay off. Hammer, after all, was then 89 years old and had already signed a non-binding agreement with the museum to transfer the paintings. There remained only the matter of the deal.

Virtually every collector negotiates carefully before he hands over his prize. There is a pecking order within museums, and a collection is judged by its place in that small universe. No collector wants to be in the basement, and no museum wants its best spots filled with bad art. So deals are important and tricky. When a dedicatory plaque gets nailed to the wall of any museum, the size and location of that plaque most likely have been negotiated. The better the collection, the tougher the deal.

In Hammer's case, according to art experts, the collection was a mixture of the very good and the merely valuable. There were Rembrandts and Renoirs, to be sure, and some were excellent. But in other cases, the paintings were secondary examples of a great artist's work. In art circles the Hammer collection is rarely mentioned in the same breath as, say, the Norton Simon collection and its long list of masterpieces.

Still, Belin was aware of what even a secondary Rembrandt or Van Gogh would bring in today's market. Many art experts regarded Van Gogh's "Irises" as something less than the artist's best, and it recently fetched $54 million at auction. Several paintings in the Hammer collection probably would sell for more on the open market than the museum could raise in a decade. To the County Museum, the Hammer collection was very important, and Belin was determined that the courtship of Armand Hammer would not end badly.

The two men settled into a small dining room just off Hammer's corner office, and it quickly became apparent that Belin's instinct had been right. As lunch began, Hammer's mood was genial, expansive. He wanted to talk deals. Only a few days before, he had signed a final agreement to give his drawings collection to the National Gallery of Art in Washington. This collection had always been regarded by Hammer as separate from the paintings, and he had long talked about giving it to the National.

It was a splendid agreement, he told Belin. The National had agreed to everything, including the construction of a small chapel on the main floor that would house a Raphael drawing of the Madonna. Hammer had written a check for $1 million so the National could buy the Raphael and add it to his collection. Now the whole thing, the chapel and an adjoining gallery, would be named the Armand Hammer Collection. It would be the first gallery ever set aside for a private collection at the National.

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