California Atty. Gen. Kamala D. Harris has launched an inquiry into the sale of vehicles by the Petersen Automotive Museum.
Representatives of the attorney general’s office met staff at the museum Thursday, asking for access to the institution’s files and questioning its process for deciding which of its collection of roughly 400 classic autos and motorcycles it would sell.
Museum staff also held a similar meeting with the general counsel for the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum to review many of the same issues. At least 10 vehicles the Petersen has placed up for auction starting Aug. 1 came from the Natural History Museum’s collection, according to a list provided by the county. It's unclear whether the cars were donated or lent to the Petersen when the automotive museum was established two decades ago.
Museum officials declined an interview request but issued a written statement from Executive Director Terry Karges: “We are confident they will find that we are operating lawfully and properly in accepting donated vehicles, selecting those that fit the mission of the museum and putting back into circulation those cars that will continue to be cared for by collectors and institutions that share our passion."
Karges has declined to make public a list of the cars the museum has already sold or plans to sell.
He said the Petersen is selling the cars to raise money for a remodeling of the facility, an updating of exhibits, interactive attractions and improvements to the collection. He said the cars on the auction block either had no historical significance or could be borrowed from other museums or collectors if needed for an exhibit.
The museum has so far confirmed $8.5 million of car sales this year.
Among the dozen cars the Petersen has already sold is a Duesenberg once owned by Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, the African American dancer and actor who often starred with Shirley Temple in pre-World War II movies.
The museum has confirmed other sales including a 1995 Ferrari F50 that went for $1.375 million. A 2006 Bugatti Veyron — the first sold in the U.S. — sold for $924,000. A 1990 Ferrari F40 fetched $715,000.
The museum plans to sell off an additional 107 vehicles worth millions of dollars through auctions starting Aug. 1.
The strategy, museum experts say, violates the standards most museums consider central to their mission.
Using such sales, known in the industry as deaccession, to finance capital projects is generally considered out of bounds, said Sally Yerkovich, head of the Institute of Museum Ethics at Seton Hall University.
"You are only supposed to use the proceeds from deaccession to add like items to the collection or for direct care of collections," Yerkovich said.
Those ethical standards are typically set by accrediting bodies seeking to protect the public's interest in historical preservation. Unlike some other major automotive museums, the Petersen is not accredited by the leading museum association.
Because nonprofit museums hold the items in trust for the public, most follow strict guidelines for how the proceeds should be spent, Yerkovich said. She said that in similar situations in other states, attorneys general weigh in on the propriety of the sales.
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