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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.

When Sherwood first read the written proposal from Hammer, he knew that this waltz was in for some bumping. The proposed agreement, he thought, was outrageous. As he and the other trustees quickly realized, Hammer's written demands went beyond those he had mentioned at lunch to Belin. The proposal went on and on, but it came to something like this:

Hammer wanted a remodeling of an entire floor of the Frances and Armand Hammer Building, one of five buildings that form the museum. This building was named for the Hammers after he made his first large contribution in 1969. Under the plan, the third floor would be carved into three spaces, and the names of other donors, currently inscribed over the galleries, would be removed. The spaces would accommodate the three elements of Hammer's collection: the paintings, prints by Daumier and the Leonardo drawings.

Everywhere, the Hammer name was to be on display. In addition to the Hammer building and the designation for the Armand Hammer Collections, the proposal called for the main entrance of the third floor to be outfitted with a full-length portrait of Hammer. Within the galleries, the Daumier prints would be called the Armand Hammer Daumier and Contemporaries Collection, and the paintings exhibit would carry the title of the Armand Hammer Collection. Each artwork in all the galleries would be credited as a donation from the Armand Hammer Foundation. A research area in the Daumier section would be known as the Armand Hammer Daumier Study Center, with funds provided by the Armand Hammer Daumier Fund.

The Leonardo portfolio was a special case. Once known as the Codex Leicester, after the English family that had owned them for several centuries, the sheets were renamed the Codex Hammer following his purchase in 1980. The proposal required the museum to use the name Codex Hammer and to call the gallery the Codex Hammer Gallery.

These galleries would be kept aloof, prohibited from mixing with other collections, and the proposal required them to have their own curatorial staff. Further, this staff--to be funded by Hammer--could not be hired or fired by the museum, but only by Hammer or the Hammer Foundation. It was, in effect, a museum within a museum.

And then there was the matter of the five paintings. Over the years Hammer has given five major paintings to the museum, including a Rembrandt, a Rubens and a Modigliani. As a courtesy, the museum has often allowed the paintings to travel with the Hammer collection on special exhibitions. But in the proposal Hammer now sought to combine the five paintings with the rest of his collection. They were to be moved permanently to the third floor and--most important of all--would revert to Hammer's ownership in the event of a breach of the agreement. Sherwood read the document with growing amazement. Isolating a collection was an onerous demand by itself, and one that the County Museum had always resisted.

To Sherwood, it violated the museum's need to order its own world, to group paintings in a way that revealed something other than the name of the person who donated them. And Hammer had not stopped there. The old man was asking for a deal that was roughly equivalent to the controversial Lehman arrangement at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

In 1970, investment banker Robert Lehman demanded, and got, a separate wing of the museum to house his collection of European art, plus a staff that was answerable only to the Lehman Foundation. If there was a moment when the balance of power shifted from museums to wealthy collectors, it was the moment that the Metropolitan agreed to Lehman's demands.

The temptation for the Met, of course, was understandable. Lehman owned the greatest private art collection of his time, 3,000 works of superb quality that spanned history from the 12th Century to the 20th Century. The Lehman arrangement was a Faustian deal of magnificent proportions, and very few museum directors could say they would have rejected it. The Hammer collection was another matter.

But there was another feature of Hammer's plan that caught Sherwood's attention and set him brooding about the past. It involved the collection of prints by the French artist, Daumier. In Sherwood's mind, the collection didn't rightfully belong to Hammer in the first place; it belonged to the museum. After 13 years, Sherwood still resented the maneuver that had left the collection in Hammer's hands.

In 1975, a man named George Longstreet offered a collection of several thousand Daumier prints to the County Museum for $250,000. The museum was enthusiastic about the purchase, and on June 4, 1975, Longstreet signed a pledge to sell the collection.

At that time, Hammer had been a trustee of the museum for about five years, largely as a result of his donations toward the Frances and Armand Hammer Building. As the negotiations with Longstreet were continuing, Hammer informed the museum that there was a new potential buyer. The potential buyer was Hammer.

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