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Petersen's auctions of its cars violate most museums' standards

Petersen Automotive Museum's car sales, to finance a building renovation, violate the standards that most museums consider central to their mission, experts say.

July 19, 2013|By Jerry Hirsch | This article has been corrected, as indicated below.
  • This proposed new facade for the Petersen Automotive Museum is one of two similar designs that has received preliminary approval from the Los Angeles Planning Department. Designed by Kohn Pedersen Fox, it would be built from a series of stainless-steel, curved ribbons meant to evoke Art Deco themes.
This proposed new facade for the Petersen Automotive Museum is one of two…

In the world of museums, selling off pieces of a collection is undertaken with great care, often prior public notice, and the singular goal of raising money to improve the collection. A Rembrandt might be sold, for instance, to expand a collection of other Dutch masters from the era.

The Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles is taking a different tack: unloading more than 100 rare and often historically important cars, in under-the-radar auctions, to finance a dramatic renovation of its building.

The strategy, museum experts say, violates the standards most museums consider central to their mission. Those ethical standards are typically set by accrediting bodies seeking to protect the public's interest in historical preservation. Unlike some other major automotive museums, the Petersen is not accredited by the leading museum association.

Using such sales, known in the industry as deaccession, to finance capital projects is generally considered out of bounds, said Sally Yerkovich, head of the Institute of Museum Ethics at Seton Hall University.

"You are only supposed to use the proceeds from deaccession to add like items to the collection or for direct care of collections," Yerkovich said.

Because nonprofit museums hold the items in trust for the public, most follow strict guidelines for how the proceeds should be spent, Yerkovich said. Sometimes, even state attorneys general weigh in on the propriety of the sales.

The museum has so far confirmed $8.5 million of car sales this year. The museum, which will celebrate its 20th anniversary next year, needs "to be updated and refreshed, and it takes money to do that," said Bruce Meyer, vice chairman of the Petersen board.

Selling cars that the museum doesn't need, or that can be borrowed from collectors or other institutions, will raise the money to reface the exterior of the Petersen and update and improve the exhibit space. The sales are aimed at expanding the museum's mission beyond Los Angeles and Hollywood car culture to include more on French Art Deco cars, motorcycles, technology and motor sports.

The Petersen has proposed two similar designs that would dramatically reshape the facade of the museum. Designed by Kohn Pedersen Fox, the new facade would be built from a series of stainless-steel, curved ribbons meant to evoke Art Deco themes. They have received preliminary approval from the Los Angeles Planning Department.

Among the dozen cars the Petersen has already sold is a Duesenberg once owned by Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, the African-American dancer and actor who often starred with Shirley Temple in pre-World War II movies. The museum plans to sell off an additional 107 vehicles worth millions of dollars in auctions that start Aug. 1.

"It was our decision that the car was not important to our collection," Meyer said when asked about the sale of Robinson's car in a brief interview. "We have other Duesenbergs to select from."

Meyer declined to answer additional questions, and museum officials have refused to release a full list of the cars being sold.

A YouTube video of the car's sale, at Gooding & Co.'s Amelia Island auction in March, shows the car being driven onstage with images of Robinson dancing on screens above. The host introduces the car as the "Bojangles Duesenberg," noting that it is "well-known and much admired" and carries a "great history and provenance."

The bidding starts at $350,000 and the auctioneer exhorts the audience to higher bids by shouting, "450 for Bojangles!" He gavels the sale at $540,000, which translates to a price of $594,000 including the commission paid by the buyer.

The museum has confirmed other sales including a 1995 Ferrari F50 that went for $1.375 million. A 2006 Bugatti Veyron — the first sold in the U.S. — sold for $924,000. A 1990 Ferrari F40 fetched $715,000. Cars planned for sale include a 1963 Volkswagen Beetle — "Herbie" from one of Disney's "The Love Bug" movies. The museum is selling Herbie because it has two of the Volkswagens used in those movies, said Terry Karges, the Petersen's executive director.

Founded in 1994 by Robert E. Petersen, head of a publishing empire that included Motor Trend magazine, the museum has emphasized vehicles that have some connection to Southern California car culture. It is a nonprofit with a six-member board, made up mostly of car enthusiasts and collectors. Peter Mullin, who operates his own car museum in Oxnard, is the chairman. Many of the cars in the Petersen's collection were donated to the museum.

Members of the American Alliance of Museums, the nation's top museum association, agree to adhere to specific guidelines governing the sale of items from their collections. Although the Petersen is not a member, "a breach of the code of ethics can often sour a museum's relationships with other institutions," Yerkovich said. "They might not loan objects to it or collaborate with it on exhibitions."

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