Arts & Entertainment

Huntington to display million-dollar Sargent Johnson panel accidentally sold for $150

The Huntington Library Gardens
The Huntington Library Gardens

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A 22-foot-long carved redwood panel by famed African-American sculptor Sargent Johnson will be on display in 2014 at the Huntington Library in San Marino.

But what's remarkable is how it got there.

The piece was done in 1937 as part of the Works Progress Administration. The giant redwood relief shows gazelles, birds and a boy clapping cymbals. It was designed to cover the organ pipes at the School for the Deaf and Blind at Berkeley. When the school picked up shop and moved, one of the redwood panels wound up in storage at UC Berkeley.

What happened after that, according to Carol Pogash of the New York Times, you have to see - or not see - to believe.

"This beautiful panel had been dismantled and misidentified," Pogash explained. "It sat in storage unnoticed and someone thought that the panel had probably been stolen. But not that many people were even aware of it."

Then, in 2009, the panels were brought upstairs to UC-Berkeley's surplus store.

That was the summer that "Greg Favors, who is a dealer of art and furniture in the Bay area, came by as he often did, looking for a good price on something to buy," said Pogash

A good price was what he got. Favors had scored a relief later valued at more than $1 million - for $150, plus tax.

"I don't think they really knew how much it was worth," said Pogash. "But they suspected they could get something for maybe $100,000 or more."

Favors later took it to Michael Rosenfeld of Rosenfeld Galleries in New York.

"He saw it and he thought, 'Oh, my Gosh. I am so happy Greg Favors didn't chop this up for firewood or use it as a trellis.'"

The panel will be on display at San Marino's Huntington Library beginning this weekend.

"The people at Berkeley are horribly embarrassed," said Pogash. "They say it was just an error of ignorance. It was a mistake that occurred 30 years ago and then it just kept cascading."

Berkeley wanted to buy it back - but now that their own consultants have valued the piece at more than $200,000 the cash-strapped UC system cannot afford to.