It was the auction the Craftsman community couldn't stop talking about.
In December, Sotheby's auction house put up a rare collection of furnishings and accessories from historic homes designed by the brothers Charles and Henry Greene, the architects who created the venerable Gamble House in Pasadena, as well as other celebrated examples of the early 20th century Craftsman style in Southern California.
The collection was offered by an anonymous donor whose identity did not seem of particular importance until it became clear it was Randell Makinson, the former curator and director of the Gamble House. The auction, which appraisers say was the largest of its kind, netted almost $3 million.
As a result, Makinson, who helped open the Gamble House in Pasadena and ran it from 1966 to 1992, now watches his legacy hotly debated by devoted Craftsman enthusiasts.
Some scholars, dealers, preservationists and collectors say Makinson crossed an important line in the museum world by collecting and trading the very art and artifacts he worked with as curator and director of a historic home. Other prominent members laud his longtime efforts to save important Craftsman artifacts and raise the profile of the genre's architecture and design.
The passions evident in interviews with Craftsman enthusiasts led to angry expressions such as the postcard Makinson received a few weeks ago. On the back of the postcard of a lantern from the back porch of the Gamble House an anonymous writer scrawled, "Randell, did you sell this, too?"
Makinson calls such insinuations "scurrilous" and says he does not believe he did anything wrong in selling items he had acquired while he worked in Greene & Greene scholarship, preservation and exhibition over the years. He seems baffled by the criticism.
"Lots of it had been in basements for 25 years ... with two inches of dirt on it. I saved it from going to the dump," Makinson said during an interview at his condominium near Arroyo Seco, overlooking the Rose Bowl. There are several Greene & Greene homes on the street, and inside, Craftsman decor.
"I wound up with a few, mostly early pieces -- I don't call it a collection. An excited owner, or a member of the Greene family, would on occasion want me to have a piece because they were appreciative of what I'd done for the history of their father or uncle."
Some of Makinson's objects up for auction had been displayed at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens as part of its permanent "Greene and Greene and the American Arts and Crafts Movement" exhibition, which is composed of items from the collections of the Huntington, the Gamble House and private donors. (The Gamble House does not exhibit items it owns from other homes on its premises.)
Appraisers noted the size of the collection and range of items. Among the most expensive pieces were sconces, desks and windows from the Greenes' Reeve and Tichenor houses in Long Beach and the Whitworth House in Altadena. But there were less-important pieces as well.
The auction of the trove stung some members of the Craftsman community who still lament the fate of Greene & Greene fixtures taken from the stately Blacker House when it was sold in 1985. After the plunder of the Blacker House, Pasadena passed an ordinance protecting significant Arts and Crafts objects from being taken out of the house they were designed for. In Craftsman lore, the total environment is central.
The polished-teak, turn-of-the-century Craftsman style embodied by the 1908 Gamble House is a key element of Pasadena's self-image. Claire Bogaard, former executive director of the preservation group Pasadena Heritage and wife of the mayor of Pasadena (which administers the house along with the USC School of Architecture), calls the auction "a real disappointment."
"It worries me that a number of those pieces may have been given for safekeeping, and that the women who donated them may have believed they would remain at the Gamble House," she says.
Makinson has been a poor steward of important objects he was given, says Ted Wells, a Laguna Beach architect who represents the auction's anonymous buyer. The two have set up a foundation to offer the pieces on long-term loan to public institutions, considered by all a happy ending.
"You have a responsibility to those objects the same way you would with your children: You don't just sell them to the highest bidder, you put them in the hands of the best steward," Wells says.
Ian Berke is a San Francisco-based Arts and Crafts collector. "What a scandal," he says. "That the director of an institution was collecting the same kinds of materials as the institution collects. You're putting your interests ahead of that of the institution. Where the hell was the board of directors or the trustees? I would have filed a lawsuit immediately and tried to get the sale stopped."