July 26, 2013
Source: The New Your Times
Photo: Auctions America
The Auctions America news release announcing the sale of a burgundy red 1957 Mercedes-Benz 300SL roadster in early August trumpets its celebrity ownership by the late actor Robert Stack and its original hardtop and leather interior. But nowhere does it mention that the car, which could sell for more than $800,000, is from the collection of the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles.
A July 16 Los Angeles Times article exposing the Petersen’s “quiet” liquidation of 119 cars from its collection of around 400 vehicles has produced a furor in the local classic car scene and claims that the Petersen’s board of wealthy collectors are steering the museum toward exhibiting highbrow classics and motorcycles and away from its mission of being home to Southern California’s automotive history.
“There’s no denying the visual beauty of prewar French motor cars,” a Times opinion writer, Paul Whitefield, wrote in a blog post. “But to many SoCal car buffs, a Voisin might as well be a violin.”
The article provoked a strong rebuke from the museum’s directors, who say that “deaccessioning” pieces in a collection is normal and, in the case of the Petersen, a necessary part of a master plan expected to be unveiled on Aug. 18 to upgrade the facility and keep it a star attraction in a city crowded with tourist draws.
“We’re being accused of devastating our collection,” said Terry Karges, the museum’s executive director. “We’re collectors, not liquidators. We’re not going to stop telling the story of the car culture in Southern California.”
Situated on Wilshire Boulevard west of downtown in a museum-heavy stretch known as the Miracle Mile, the Petersen museum opened in 1994 under the patronage of the publishing magnate Robert E. Petersen, a founder of Hot Rod and Motor Trend magazines, who died in 2007. The midcentury-modern building, a former department store erected in 1962, includes two floors of exhibits totaling about 150 cars, plus an underground vault of some 300 stored cars that only recently opened to public tours.
Mr. Karges says the museum’s exhibits as well as its building need renovation, while the vault, which is as long as a city block, has become overstuffed with cars unworthy of display. “They were given as donations,” he said, “but were never intended to be museum pieces.”
Among them are relatively common vintage models like a 1967 Camaro, unrestored oddballs like a 1976 A.M.C. Pacer and a wrecked 1968 Dodge Charger “General Lee” used in the 2005 film “The Dukes of Hazzard,” based on the 1980s TV show. Critics have cited such popular exotics as a Ferrari F40 and F50, as well as a famous pavement-hugging 1939 Lincoln Zephyr custom car called Scrape, as evidence that the museum is selling off some of its best attractions. The museum is even selling its Lamborghini Espada, which Mr. Petersen once described as his favorite car design.
“This is the first time in 20 years that we’ve culled the collection,” Mr. Karges said. “It’s part of the museum business. It’s the same at art museums.”
Mr. Karges said the museum spent a year developing its list of sale vehicles. The decisions often came down to museum relevance and whether a car could be reacquired if needed through a loan. One car already sold, a 2006 Bugatti Veyron that was auctioned for $924,000 in March, cost the museum $30,000 a year to maintain, he said. And, since one of the museum’s board members owns two Veyrons, “we know where to find one if we need it.”
Jackie Frady, president and executive director of the National Automobile Museum in Reno, Nev., which has about 200 cars, described such sales as “a very traditional way of updating and modernizing your collection.” When the museum negotiates with a donor, she said, “we make it clear that the car is being accepted without any restrictions.”
But recent tax law changes have reduced donations of cars and complicated an already difficult financial picture for car museums, said Laura Brinkman, executive director and chief executive of the 130-car Auburn Cord Duesenberg Automobile Museum in Auburn, Ind. Her museum has 50,000 visitors a year, but the entry fee, at $12.50 for adults, amounts to only 5 percent of revenue. Events, memberships and gift shop sales bring in more, but she depends on donated cars to help fill a $500,000 annual gap in the museum’s $1 million budget.
Whereas donors were once able to write off the car’s appraised value, they can now write off only the sale price assuming the car is being donated expressly to be sold. It can take a museum more than a year to auction a car, and many donors don’t want to wait that long for a write-off, Ms. Brinkman said, adding: “We saw donations drop off in that category. That was a good source of revenue for us.”
Ken Gross, an auto writer who was the Petersen’s director in 1997-2000, thinks the sale and the museum’s plan to broaden its exhibits upholds Robert Petersen’s original vision. “If you look at his empire, he had car magazines, he had bike magazines, he had hot rod magazines,” Mr. Gross said. “Pete was always a promoter; he was always challenging you to come up with new things.”