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Slide Victim's Painting Offers Off-the-Wall Help

June 22, 2005|Jeff Gottlieb | Times Staff Writer

It took a landslide for Albert Trevino to learn that he had a treasure on his wall, one that could help him rebuild the wreckage of his $1.8-million Laguna Beach house.

The painting of Mission San Juan Capistrano had been hanging on Trevino's living room wall for 20 years. He thinks he bought it at a garage sale.

Now Trevino, a former Irvine Co. planner, believes the painting is worth as much as $500,000 -- thanks to an artist friend who spotted it this month after Trevino was given 15 minutes to clear out the house.

"My wife and children said this is a miracle," said Trevino, 74. "It's an unbelievable set of events."

Trevino's house on Madison Place is one of 20 in Bluebird Canyon that were destroyed or severely damaged. His house has been shown repeatedly on TV, having slid 30 to 40 feet, leaving half of it hanging in the air, seemingly ready for a strong wind to blow it over.

A few days after the June 1 landslide, Trevino, along with other Bluebird Canyon residents, was allowed to grab what he could. Because of the home's precarious position, only two people at a time were allowed in.

The living room where the painting had hung for a couple of decades was off-limits because of fears the house would topple.

Luckily the painting had been moved to another room in April for the Trevinos' 50th wedding anniversary party so the wall could be used as a projection screen.

Trevino's son and a neighbor gathered what they could, including a land grant signed by King Ferdinand of Spain in 1822 that gave Trevino's ancestors a huge swath of acreage.

They also grabbed a family portrait and the painting of the mission.

Laguna Beach neighbor Dave Hagen, who helped carry things from the house, took the painting home for safe-keeping, hanging it above the fireplace.

Hagen's wife, Pam, an amateur painter, studied the Trevinos' painting and thought the signature was familiar. The painting, she thought, was the work of Joseph Kleitsch, one of the most prominent Southern California plein-air artists, who had a home and studio in Laguna Beach before his death in 1931.

Pam Hagen also had a connection to Mission San Juan Capistrano since she, her daughter and granddaughter were baptized there.

She called Trevino.

"She said, 'Do you know what you have?' " he recalled. "I said, 'No I don't.... We like it very much.' "

"She said, 'This is a really remarkable painting.' "

Hagen invited Ray Redfern, a Laguna Beach art dealer, to look at the painting, and he too recognized it as a Kleitsch -- appraising it at half a million dollars. A Kleitsch painting recently sold at auction for slightly more than $367,000.

"I don't believe Mr. Trevino knew what they had," said Redfern, owner of Redfern Gallery. "It was just a nice painting hanging on the wall all this time."

Because of the value of the painting, Hagen and Trevino called the Laguna Art Museum, which agreed to house the painting. The museum has four paintings by the Hungarian-born Kleitsch, who was especially known for his paintings of Laguna in the 1920s. The museum is also in the process of buying a Kleitsch self-portrait. Because the exhibition space is filled, the painting is in the director's office.

Titled "Evening Shadows," the 1923 painting shows a woman in the foreground who is probably Kleitsch's wife, said Janet Blake, the museum's curator of collections.

"It's amazing that situations like this still happen," she said, "even with the amount of attention that artists like Joseph Kleitsch are receiving today. People have them in their homes and they don't even realize it."

Blake said she thought that a woman bought the painting from the estate of Kleitsch's widow in 1953 and that it was passed on to her children and grandchildren.

Trevino, who has degrees in landscape architecture from UC Berkeley and Harvard, built the five-bedroom, three-bath house in the early 1960s for about $45,000. He and his wife raised 11 children there while he helped plan Laguna Niguel, Fashion Island and Newport Center and worked short stints as an assistant secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development in the Nixon and George W. Bush administrations.

Now, Trevino, who had never heard of Kleitsch, knows a lot about him, including the fact that the artist died in November 1931, a month before Trevino was born.

He still is amazed by the coincidences that led to the painting's identity being revealed.

"Out of this smoldering dust comes the picture, and the only reason it became identified was because of Pam's interest in [that style of art] and the mission, and one of the reasons I picked it up originally is because of my wife Dolores' interest in the mission," Trevino said.

For Trevino and some of his neighbors not lucky enough to have inadvertently picked up a valuable painting at a garage sale two decades ago, the Laguna Beach City Council on Tuesday allocated $1 million for emergency repairs.

"I think $1 million out of a city budget that's usually $30 [million] or $40 million is pretty good," said Todd MacCallum, a spokesman for the Bluebird Canyon Community Assn., which represents all landslide victims.


Times staff writer Sara Lin contributed to this report.

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