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An exodus of artwork from L.A.

The collections of Dennis Hopper and others are largely headed for auction, not museums. Why? The reasons are many, experts say, including art prices, a need for cash and the owners' wishes.

October 26, 2010|By Jori Finkel, Los Angeles Times

This year, Los Angeles has lost three of its leading art collectors, as actor Dennis Hopper, gallery director Robert Shapazian and computer pioneer Max Palevsky all died within two months of each other. Now, the city is poised to lose the bulk of their collections as well, as Christie's is selling some 350 artworks from their estates starting this week.

Expected to bring close to $100 million, these artworks are sure to be dispersed to buyers across the country and beyond. Some of the most prized pieces, slated for Christie's big contemporary sale Nov. 10, include a 1987 Basquiat painting owned by Hopper, which the auction house estimated will sell for $5 million to $7 million; Roy Lichtenstein's 1964 "Girl in Mirror" from Palevsky, estimated at $3 million to $4 million; and Andy Warhol's 1962 "Campbell's Soup Can (Tomato)" from Shapazian, estimated at $6 million to $8 million.

In the trade, these kinds of historically important works are called museum pieces. But they have not been bequeathed to Los Angeles museums, which depend heavily on such gifts for their growth.

Following May's auctions of the estates of L.A. writer Michael Crichton and arts patron Frances Brody, which saw a $28.6-million Jasper Johns' American flag and a $106.5-million Picasso painting leave Christie's for private hands, the upcoming sales raise questions about arts philanthropy in Southern California. Why aren't more works, many of which are too expensive for museums to buy on the open market, going to local institutions?

Deborah McLeod, who has worked with several of these collectors as director of Gagosian Beverly Hills, calls the exodus of artwork "a failure of our culture."

"Unlike the East Coast, where a number of big families have the tradition of giving," she says, "there just isn't an ingrained philanthropic culture of supporting museums here in Los Angeles. You've heard people say we're a one-philanthropist town, with Eli Broad, and that's not so far off."

L.A. gallery owner Louis Stern adds that museums can hardly compete with auctions now that art, especially contemporary art, routinely achieves such high prices. "Who's going to donate an artwork when you are promised millions at market?

"The idea of selling at auction is incredibly seductive," he adds. "The auction houses are extremely well organized, they make it their business to know all the trusts and estates lawyers. They've taken on this sort of quasi-official role in the art world — almost like a bank."

For Christie's, which has an active office in Los Angeles, this influx of material marks a competitive advantage over longtime rival Sotheby's. It's also a testament to L.A.'s growing art scene. "We're seeing a generation of L.A. collectors, who started in the 1960s, coming of age," says Laura Paulson, deputy chairman of Christie's Americas.

Several local museum officials declined to comment on what for them can be a sensitive topic, given their need to cultivate art collectors as donors. They also noted that it's hard to generalize about estates, since some collectors, such as Shapazian and Palevsky, make donations to local museums before their deaths.

It's certainly true that every estate has its own story, at least as complicated as the collector himself. Some estates, such as those of Crichton and Hopper, have several heirs vying for pieces of the pie. Some, such as Palevsky's, have already been significantly reduced by gifts of all kinds. Other estates are rich in art but poor in cash.

Peter R. Stern, a New York attorney who specializes in art-world litigation, says the decision to donate typically originates with the collector. Executors and trustees "have to live within the terms of the will or trust instrument," he says, noting that it would be "very rare" for one to allow discretionary charitable donations.

Trustees often do, however, determine when and where to sell, and Peter Stern says they favor auctions over galleries for the sake of financial accountability: "To sell at public auction is arguably by definition the fair market value of the property, so heirs can't complain that the work was sold for too little." Auctions also appeal to estates under pressure to raise money quickly (even though the lapse of federal estate taxes this year might take some pressure off). "If you sell privately, there's no way of telling how long it will take," he says.

Alex Hitz, a trustee for the Hopper estate, says the actor himself decided to liquidate his collection, excluding what Hitz calls Hopper's "self-created art." "Dennis' will mandates that everything be sold," says Hitz, "and he was very excited by the idea of a single-owner auction."

(As to why Christie's beat out Sotheby's, Hitz says only, "It was a better fit." Others say it boils down to Christie's aggressive financial packages and a stronger presence in L.A.)

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