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Laguna Museum Collects $971,000 at Photo Auction

Art: Proceeds from 29 works by Paul Outerbridge Jr. will fund acquisition of 20th-century California paintings.

April 24, 1996|JOHN J. GOLDMAN and CATHY CURTIS | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

NEW YORK — Twenty-nine photographs owned by the Laguna Art Museum were sold at a controversial auction Tuesday at Christie's for more than $971,000.

"The sale exceeded our expectations and we hope to do something truly wonderful for everyone in Orange County with the collection fund that will result from this sale," said Naomi Vine, the Laguna Art Museum's director.

The proceeds from the auction of works by Paul Outerbridge Jr. will be used to purchase 20th-century California art, said Bolton Colburn, the museum's chief curator. Vine has said the photographs went on the block because they "do not fit the [museum's] mission statement," which states that the institution has a "special focus on the art of California."

Before the auction, critics contended that the sale of the Outerbridge collection was ill-advised because it not only denied the role of Laguna Beach in the history of photography but violated the role of a cultural institution as a trustee of significant works of art donated to it.

Opponents of the sale said the auction breaks up one of the finest holdings of Modernist photographic work in the nation and relegates many of the images to the obscurity of private collections, thus making eventual reassembly all but impossible.

Even as the sale was taking place, it was being condemned as far away as Australia where Outerbridge expert Graham Howe noted that the photos had been placed in Laguna's care "to serve the public good in perpetuity. . . . I feel [the museum officials] have been insensitive to the public outcry concerning the Outerbridge work, and have thereby abused their public trust in a most egregious way."

The highest price Tuesday--$180,000--was paid for Outerbridge's quintessentially Cubist study of a cracker tin. The picture titled "Saltine Box" has been praised by photography historian John Szarkowski as a three-dimensional form resting in a plane or space that cannot be rationalized and which challenges the senses.

"The Ide Collar," a picture of a shirt collar that was Outerbridge's first commercial advertising assignment, sold for $170,000 to the same buyer, who phoned in the bids to the auction house's headquarters on Park Avenue in Manhattan.

The auction house declined to identify the successful bidder.

Before the sale, Christie's experts estimated the platinum print of the box could bring as much as $80,000 and the shirt collar $90,000.

Bidders also were enthusiastic about "Images de Deauville," a carefully positioned, circa 1936, color print featuring one of a pair of dice, a seashell, a boat and a dominant yellow pyramid carefully arranged to complement each other. It brought $85,000--$45,000 above its estimated top price.

The one photograph in the collection that Outerbridge made after moving to Laguna in the 1940s--a picture of a man and a woman, naked and on stage at the Pageant of the Masters in 1950--sold for its high estimate of $6,000 to a West Coast private collector who Christie's also declined to name.

In all, 17 of the pictures exceeded Christie's estimates. But there also were a number of disappointments as nine were sold below their estimates and seven were not sold.

Critics of the sale said that insufficient approaches were made to other museums to acquire Outerbridge's photographs as a complete group, and that the Laguna museum's action could have a chilling effect on potential donors contemplating giving material.

"The sale promises to disfigure the artistic face of the museum," charged Elaine Dines Cox, who assembled a comprehensive traveling exhibition of the photographer's work for the Laguna museum in 1981. "One must call into question the credibility of the present-day decision makers at this institution," Cox added.

G. Ray Hawkins, a photography dealer in Santa Monica who long has been a supporter of Outerbridge's work and who represents his estate, called the Laguna collection "absolutely unique and pivotal pieces of 20th-century art."

Hawkins--who said late Tuesday that he had purchased nine of the photographs at the auction--previously had labeled the decision to sell as "foolish" on the museum's part. (Hawkins would not reveal which photographs he acquired Tuesday but did say his bid on "The Ide Collar" was unsuccessful.)

"It's a terrible move to make, regardless of what they intended to do with the funds," added Arthur Ollman, director of the Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego. "They were sitting on an extremely important grouping of one of Southern California's most important artists."

Though steps to rid the museum of the works began in October 1993, the actual decision to auction the photographs and risk breaking them up as a group wasn't made until last summer.

Museum officials said that no other museum had agreed to buy parts of the collection or the entire group and so selling it at Christie's was the most ethical thing to do.

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