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Orange County Museum of Art deal is too sketchy

OCMA officials may have had good motives, but the sale price and the secretiveness raise questions.

July 09, 2009

A questionable deal is a lot like art. No one can define it, but people know it when they see it. What everybody knows is that at least a couple of the paintings recently sold by the Orange County Museum of Art were stellar examples of California Impressionism. Yet no one except the museum's director and a few others know why they were sold so secretly, for such an apparently low price, or to whom.

Even if Dennis Szakacs and the museum's board had the best motives -- the director says his goal was to keep the paintings together and in California, where they originated -- art and museum aficionados in Orange County and elsewhere recognize a strange deal when they see it. With several experts estimating that the best of the 18 paintings could easily have fetched $1 million on its own, even in a soft market, many a head is being scratched over the sale price of $963,000 for the entire lot. The paintings went to a Laguna Beach collector whom Szakacs has declined to name, raising questions anew about why he didn't try for a better price at the Laguna Art Museum. Most of the paintings had belonged to the smaller museum for many years, until they came under OCMA's control via a troubled merger that ended in a split so messy, it made Jon and Kate look like honeymooners.

The sale flouted several venerated traditions of the museum world, which aims to keep art within the realm of public viewing and avoid surreptitious deals that could imply a conflict of interest -- such as an important donor getting a special bargain. This sale might be as free of ethical problems as Szakacs vows, but the secrecy with which it was made -- a tip to Times reporters brought it to light -- would raise eyebrows even if the other aspects of the deal weren't unorthodox.

Though OCMA officials may have meant well -- and Szakacs is a respected director who deserves credit for returning more than 3,000 works to the Laguna museum -- they have done their institution few favors with the sale. At least one museum in addition to Laguna's is miffed at not being offered a chance to outbid the mysterious buyer. The collector is, according to Szakacs, known for lending works for exhibition, and 10 of the paintings are on display at the Nevada Museum of Art, but it is unclear whether or when they might again hang on a museum wall. And what will donors make of the museum's money-management skills, knowing that the paintings are widely believed to have been worth substantially more than they fetched?

It's not as though OCMA is in desperate straits; the paintings were sold to raise cash for new acquisitions, not to keep its doors open. The museum violated no formal rules, but both we and the art world wish its leaders had exhibited more prudence, openness and collegiality.

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