Berkeley sold $1 million artwork for $150

It’s the dream of every bargain-hunting, Antiques Roadshow-watching deal hawk in the country: Stumble across a dusty, long-forgotten piece of work by a famous artist and watch as the offers come rolling in.

Three years ago, art dealer Greg Favors discovered eight cracked panels of carved, redwood relief in a plywood bin at the University of California at Berkeley’s surplus store. Not knowing what they were, but thinking they were “cool,” Favors plunked down $150 plus tax for the curious pieces.

Favors had the pieces restored while he sleuthed around the Internet trying to determined the artist. One e-mail seeking help from a Berkeley art scholar got a response just five minutes later:

“You BOUGHT this? They SOLD it?”

The scholar identified prominent African-American artist Sargent Johnson as the creator of the work, leading Favors on a  journey through federal and state bureaucracies.

The Federal government had been thought to retain ownership over works of art like Johnson’s that was produced under the Works Progress Administration and the New Deal.

Johnson’s relief had covered organ pipes at the California School of the Blind, and was removed from a wall in 1980 when the school moved. The pieces shuffled around university storage, then got misidentified and eventually put up for sale.

Working with an attorney, Favors got a government ruling saying the Feds don’t own WPA art affixed to non-federal buildings.

Last year, Favors sold the art to New York art dealer Michael Rosenfeld for $225,000, who quickly sold the piece to a very interested Huntington Library in San Marino. Rosenfeld said the museum paid far under market value and the piece was worth well over $1 million.

UC Berkeley is calling it an expensive mistake. Andrew Goldblatt, assistant risk manager for the university, told the NYT:

“We do regret it. Something went wrong, and it just cascaded.”