Harlem Renaissance Artist's Piece is Mislabeled and Sold

By: Michael Engle

Suppose you sold an old piece of art you found in your storage, only to later find out that that same piece of art was an original from a famed Harlem Renaissance artist and was actually worth thousands of times more than what you sold it for? I'm sure you'd kick yourself right? Well the same can be said of UC Berkeley who went through similar embarrassment when they mislabeled and sold an original piece by Sargent Johnson.

Though his professional career was largely based in the San Francisco area, visual artist Sargent Johnson (1888-1967) was a significant contributor to the Harlem Renaissance; his legacy continues to grow, even after his death.  The University of California at Berkeley recently earned itself an infamous story about its carelessness, which Carol Pogash covered for The New York Times.

Johnson was born in Boston in 1888, to a Swedish father and a Cherokee/black mother.  Johnson's father passed away in 1897, and his mother succumbed to tuberculosis five years after that, leaving him orphaned at the age of 14.  After moving multiple times to live with relatives across the USA, Johnson eventually settled in San Francisco.  There, his artistry was further developed by the Panama Pacific International Exposition, as well as by his studies at the A.W. Best School of Art and at the California School of Fine Arts (now known as the San Francisco Art Institute).

Owing to racial tensions in American society, some of Johnson's siblings eventually opted to assimilate themselves with the Cherokee culture.  Johnson, however, unequivocally considered himself black.  Johnson's ties to the Harlem Renaissance were cemented through the now-defunct William E. Harmon Foundation, a New York-based foundation dedicated to showcasing the works of black artists.  Racial identity was a constant inspiration within Johnson's artwork: in addition to black culture, Johnson was also influenced by Mexican archaeology.

In 1937, Johnson completed two large Art Deco redwood reliefs, as commissioned by the Works Progress Administration.  These reliefs were used as organ pipe covers by Berkeley's California School for the Deaf and Blind.  In 1980, this school vacated its building, and the flagship state university subsequently acquired the deserted campus.  Because the building was in need of a restoration, Johnson's reliefs were deconstructed and moved into storage.  In this transition, one of the panels was mistakenly marked as property of Cal-Berkeley's graduate school.  This mislabeled set of panels was eventually transferred to the university's surplus store, where art and furniture dealer Greg Favors purchased the deconstructed piece in 2009, for a grand total of $164.63, including sales tax.

This sale quickly became a source of embarrassment for the school, though it had little recourse.  Though most WPA artwork is under federal jurisdiction, Favors' purchase was deemed to be out of the scope of WPA regulations--therefore legal.  The sale was deemed valid because the Johnson piece was not housed in a federally-owned building when the university sold it to Favors.  Favors earned a sizable profit from the transaction after selling the piece to Michael Rosenfeld, a reputable expert on African-American art who owns an eponymous New York art gallery.  Rosenfeld, in turn, immediately flipped it to the Huntington Library, a museum in the Los Angeles area, for an undisclosed sum below market value.  (Art collectors commonly sell important pieces to museums at special rates.)

The University of California had expressed an interest in reacquiring the artwork, in order to correct its colossal error.  However, budgetary constraints (as evidenced by statewide tuition controversies) have precluded the university from doing so.  In the meantime, the Huntington Library will open a new museum section, centered around American artwork, in 2014.  The museum's half of the Johnson woodwork will be the centerpiece of its new wing.  Berkeley's part is locked in a conference room and is only shown upon special request.  Clearly, the university is regretting its decision to have, in retrospect, given away a million-dollar piece of Harlem Renaissance history.

Photo: Sal Towse

For more on Harlem news, follow me on Twitter (@MarcusCooks)