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Museum Sticks With Plan to Sell Outerbridges

Art: Two other venues' interest in keeping the collection of Modernist photographer's works intact came too late, director says.

February 07, 1996|CATHY CURTIS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANTA ANA — The Laguna Art Museum will not reverse its decision to break up and auction off its 93-piece collection of work by internationally respected Modernist photographer Paul Outerbridge, even though two other museums in Southern California have expressed interest in purchasing the collection intact.

Last week, Robert A. Sobieszek, head of the photography department at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and Arthur Ollman, director of the Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego, said if they had known the distinguished collection was available, they would have tried to raise the money to buy it.

But Monday, speaking at Rancho Santiago College here, Laguna museum director Naomi Vine said she is "satisfied that the collection was [already] offered to the public institutions with the best likelihood" of buying it and the auction will proceed.

"We have no plans to renegotiate our contract" with Christie's in New York, Vine said. "It would be extremely difficult and, I suspect, costly, to do that."

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Rick Wester, director of the photography department at Christie's, said consignors do withdraw works from auction, but very rarely.

Christie's will sell the Outerbridge works individually at three auctions, two of which are scheduled for April. The first auction--of 36 photographs--is expected to fetch at least $500,000. Proceeds will go to the museum's collection fund.

Though news of the sale didn't surface until last week, museum trustees had decided in October 1993 to eliminate the Outerbridge photographs, drawings and prints. Vine said last week that the museum tried to sell the works as a group for two years before deciding to break up the collection.

But Jeffrey Fraenkel, a photography dealer in San Francisco who had been working as the museum's agent, said he had offered the collection to "less than a handful of museums," none of which was able to meet Laguna's terms. One was the J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu.

Laguna museum officials said that after Fraenkel's contract expired, they made further attempts to interest institutional buyers but to no avail. The original asking price--which none of the involved parties will reveal--was determined by two separate appraisals, one of which was by Christie's.

Vine's remarks Monday came in response to questions after a previously scheduled lecture on another subject. She also noted what an "incredible responsibility" an entire collection is.

"Works of art are irreplaceable. Each is unique. If you own a work of art, whether you are a private collector or a museum or even the artist who made it, you have a very serious responsibility . . . to posterity to take care of it properly.

"That includes a number of very expensive activities: proper storage; insurance, insurance is the single biggest expense we have on an ongoing basis; climate control; proper handling. What every museum has to do [is to ask such questions as]: Why did the community form the museum? . . . How is it we serve the community best?"

Vine said museums remove works for various reasons, including lack of quality, poor condition or duplication. The Outerbridges are being deaccessioned because they do not "fit the mission statement" of the museum, which is to collect California art.

She said she had been taken "totally by surprise" that the consignment of the collection to Christie's had became a media topic.

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Outerbridge spent his last 15 years in Laguna Beach, but his vintage platinum prints and Carbro color prints in the collection were made between 1921 and 1938, when he was living in New York and Europe. The collection was donated by his widow in 1968, 10 years after his death.

In response to another question, about reports last week that merger talks between the Laguna Art Museum and the Newport Harbor Art Museum have accelerated, Vine repeated a statement she made then: "On the board level, discussions about merging have been going on for more than 10 years. For all I know, they'll be going on for another 10 years."

Asked privately whether removing the Outerbridge material and the increased merger activity are at all related, Vine said: "Absolutely, categorically, there is no connection."

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