In 1919, Red Sox owner Harry Frazee famously sold a young pitcher named George Herman Ruth to the New York Yankees, netting some petty cash, which may or may not have financed a Broadway play called No, No, Nanette. George went on to become known as Babe, the Yankees went on to win 28 championships and the Sawx didn’t win the World Series for 86 years.
The University of California, Berkeley, knows how Frazee must have felt: In 2009, the university sold a sculpture by Sargent Johnson, a prominent figure in the 1930s’ Harlem Renaissance, to a gallery outside Los Angeles for a mere $164.63 (tax included). Berkeley, understandably, is under a Mordor’s worth of fire from the California art community, who read about the sale this week in The New York Times.
The university admits it mishandled the 22-foot-long redwood carving, which was featured in a school for the deaf and blind. Berkeley bought the building and put the piece in storage, where it was eventually mislabeled and clustered in with other school miscellanea, then put up for sale at its surplus store.
An art dealer named Greg Favors couldn’t believe his eyes when he found the sculpture. He called in scholar Gray Brechin to appraise it, who sent him this email: “You BOUGHT this? They SOLD it?” Indeed. Favors sold it for nearly a million dollars to the Huntington Library of San Marino.
What a dick. He didn’t even bother to take it on Pawn Stars?
Andrew Goldblatt, assistant risk manager for the university, says of course they regret it. “Something went wrong, and it just cascaded.”
Sargent Johnson was one of the first African-American sculptors from California to receive national acclaim. Today his sculptures and carvings sell for more than $100,000.