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Works at Risk : Collectors lost some prized pieces in the quake. Many took steps to prevent damage. And few say the disaster will make them abandon their hobbies.

March 04, 1994|NANCY KAPITANOFF | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Nancy Kapitanoff writes regularly about art for The Times

First they heard the roar from the earth below, then the sound of glass breaking--not just ordinary windows or even treasured family heirlooms, but art, contemporary glass sculptures that had been lovingly acquired over time to become part of significant art collections.

When the shaking stopped, art collectors in the San Fernando Valley waited anxiously for the sun to rise so they could see what was left of their collections.

After the Jan. 17 quake, one may question why anyone living in earthquake territory would want to be surrounded by delicate art objects. But once a collector, always a collector.

"Half the fun is in the hunt, the chase," says Dan Greenberg, who collects glass and other art objects with his wife, Susan Steinhauser. "We knew the price we'd pay for collecting this kind of material, that we'd have to suffer. The nature of glass puts it at risk, but the joy of living with the material--you don't realize how much you enjoy it until it's not there."

Most collectors have faced the fact that they live with the risk of damage to their collections from natural and man-made events. They take reasonable precautions to prevent damage, but like most of us living in California who continually hear that the Big One is coming, art collectors just don't dwell on such impending doom. After all, how can you live if you're always standing by for a disaster?

Greenberg and Steinhauser's sizable collection is housed in their Westside home and his Van Nuys office. In the weeks since the quake, they and many Valley collectors have been taking stock of what they lost--or what was spared. They have spent time mulling over which of their efforts to protect their art succeeded and which did not.

"It's remarkable how random the destruction was," Greenberg says. "Places where I thought we would lose everything, nothing broke."

As these collectors share their experiences and thoughts for the future, it becomes obvious that the philosophy behind art collecting has as many variations as there are artistic media. What might seem prudent to one collector after the quake--to secure every piece of art to a solid, ideally immovable object--is overkill to others. They'd rather live with the peril of losing artwork than not being able to pick it up and hold it.

"I don't like having anything permanent. I move art around all the time," says Carl Schlosberg, a private art dealer in Sherman Oaks who lost several sculptures and a 17th-Century glass collection in the quake. He is restoring his home, where every room needs some work, and outdoor sculpture garden, where he lost a few pieces--and giving some attention to collecting art pieces that will endure earthquakes. "You have to use common sense when placing things," he says, but beyond that, he intends to continue to move his sculpture around.

Greenberg and Steinhauser had plexiglass guards installed in front of some shelves before the quake, which prevented many glass pieces from falling and breaking. But art objects on other shelves were not protected by a barrier, and most of them survived. Many were secured to the shelves with a sticky, soft wax sold as Quake Wax. "The pieces we lost weren't well balanced," Greenberg says.

He is considering putting two strands of fishing line across unprotected shelves. Fishing line would offer some flexibility while possibly preventing objects from falling, and it would be less intrusive to the eye than plexiglass.

Gloria and Sonny Kamm have hundreds of glass and ceramic sculptures, and Sonny's multimedia teapot collection, which also numbers in the hundreds, in their Sherman Oaks home. They have been diligent about protecting their collections.

Of other earthquakes they have been through, Gloria Kamm says, "We've had 5s and 5.2s, and we've never had anything fall over or move around," Gloria says.

"We always knew psychologically we would have a problem with the Big One, and this came as close to the Big One as I care to have it," Sonny Kamm says.

Unscathed by the quake was the abstract major glass installation work in their stairwell. It was built into the wall by artist John Gilbert Luebtow. Because they had affixed smaller objects to pedestals and shelves with wax, most did not become airborne.

Their cabinets were bolted to the wall. But some of the glass shelves within, held in place with just a couple of pins, collapsed, creating a cascading effect that damaged several works.

"We had shards over the entire bedroom," Gloria Kamm says. "When something is lost, you always think you should have done better."

"We're going to silicon the shelves to the brackets and the back of the cabinets," Sonny Kamm says.

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