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Petersen Automotive Museum takes a major detour

The L.A.-centric Petersen Automotive Museum is selling a third of its 400 classic cars and will put more emphasis on motorcycles and French vehicles.

July 16, 2013|By Jerry Hirsch
  • Petersen Automotive Museum visitors can pay $25 for a guided tour of its vault to learn the stories behind about 130 cars, most of which are linked to Hollywood stars and other notables.
Petersen Automotive Museum visitors can pay $25 for a guided tour of its… (Patrick T. Fallon, For The…)

One by one, in auctions across the country, some of the world's most collectible cars are quietly passing from the Petersen Automotive Museum's vault into private hands.

The sales started in March, and they include the automotive equivalents of a Pablo Picasso or a Salvador Dali. A 1995 Ferrari F50 went for $1.375 million. A 2006 Bugatti Veyron — the first sold in the U.S. — fetched $924,000. A 1990 Ferrari F40 garnered $715,000.

Before the auctions end, the museum plans to liquidate nearly a third of its cache of about 400 classic cars. The sales — conducted under the radar until the museum confirmed them to The Times on Monday — will raise money to finance a major face-lift and reconfiguration of the institution, which occupies a former Ohrbach's department store at Wilshire Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue.

PHOTOS: A tour through Petersen's vault of rare cars

The new plans include a greater emphasis on motorcycles and French art deco vehicles, passions that match the tastes of the museum's new leadership. The strategy was launched this year by Executive Director Terry Karges — who owns a motorcycle company, Champions Moto — and new board Chairman Peter Mullin, who also heads an auto museum in Oxnard that boasts one of the world's foremost private collections of French cars.

"The idea was to breathe some life into the museum," Karges said. "We want to be a world-class automotive museum. We want to become an art museum featuring rolling sculpture and tell stories about the art of speed and the art of design."

The auctions were kept low-profile because of worries about how the news might affect future automobile donations, Karges said.

The sell-off has drawn criticism from former Petersen employees. The overhaul, they say, threatens to move the institution from the focus put forth in its mission statement: "to present the history of the automobile and its impact on American life and culture using Los Angeles as the prime example."

Founded in 1994 by Robert E. Petersen, head of a publishing empire that included Motor Trend magazine, the museum has until now focused on vehicles built or designed in Southern California.

"They have sold a lot of wonderful cars that Bob Petersen was very fond of," said Buddy Pepp, who retired as the museum's executive director last year.

The California-focused collection helped establish the Petersen as one of the premier automotive museums in the nation, said Matt Anderson, curator of transportation at Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich.

"They have a signature collection," Anderson said, "some rare, one-of-a-kind vehicles, some Hollywood movie cars and then a good cross representation that fits Southern California's car culture, which may be even more significant than that of Detroit."

So far, the Petersen has sold 12 cars for a combined $8.5 million at Gooding & Co.'s Amelia Island Auction in March. An additional 107 cars will be offered at an Auctions America event in Burbank starting Aug. 1. They include a 1999 Shelby Series 1 that bears serial number 00075, in honor of designer Carroll Shelby's 75th birthday, and a 1963 Volkswagen Beetle — "Herbie" — that starred in Disney's 1968 movie "The Love Bug."

Karges estimates that the August auction could reap as much as $5 million for the museum.

Karges, who became executive director last year, called the sales a culling of vehicles that were either surplus or that could easily be borrowed from collectors if needed for an exhibit. He said the sales will provide millions of dollars to fund improvements to the museum, including new exhibits and interactive displays, in time for its 20th anniversary next year.

He said the museum will bring in some of the cars from Mullin's French collection and will add more about motorcycles, technology and motor sports.

Including Mullin, three of the six members of the Petersen's board are also on the board of the Mullin Automotive Museum in Oxnard. Mullin personally owns almost all the rare pre-World War II French cars displayed at his museum.

Selling the vehicles won't hurt the Petersen because many were not exhibit-quality cars. Others would cost "an enormous" amount to restore and were taking up valuable space, Karges said.

"There are so many cars, there is no room to move downstairs," Karges said, referring to the Petersen's vault, or storage area.

With freed-up space, the museum may still add cars to its collection. Karges also plans to expand its already extensive collection of alternative-fuel vehicles.

Once restricted to high-ranking museum personnel and visiting VIPs, the vault was opened to public tours last year and has become a popular and profitable exhibit. For $25 on top of the Petersen's $15 admission, visitors can take a guided tour to learn the stories behind about 130 cars, most of which are linked to Hollywood stars and other notables.

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