Starting back in March, the Petersen Museum in Los Angeles started to quietly sell off parts of its ~400 car collection. When a lot of more than 100 cars was announced to go on the block at Auctions America’s Aug. 1 sale in Burbank, California, it caught the attention of collectors and curators across the world of collector cars, and the museum made a public announcement to the Los Angeles Times this week that the sales are to raise money to renovate and reconfigure the museum. Also announced was the fact that the museum, which was originally endowed by Robert Petersen, who founded an enthusiast magazine empire including Hot Rod and Motor Trend, and Peterson’s wife Margie, would be changing its focus to include more motorcycles and prewar French cars from the Art Deco period.
The museum says that many of the cars they are selling are duplicates or not suitable for public display, critics, though, aren’t happy with the changes and say that the changes reflect the personal tastes of Executive Director Terry Karges, who owns Champions Moto, a motorcycle company, and new museum board Chairman Peter Mullin, whose own museum in Oxnard, CA is one of the world’s finest collections of Bugattis and other French classics.
“The idea was to breathe some life into the museum,” Karges told the LA Times. “We want to be a world-class automotive museum. We want to become an art museum featuring rolling sculpture and tell stories about the art of speed and the art of design.” Karges described the vehicles being sold as either surplus or cars that could easily be borrowed if needed for an exhibit. Others were characterized as not exhibit-quality vehicles that would be expensive to restore and were just taking up space in the museum’s crowded “vault” in the building’s basement.
Former employees, though, say that the changes are not consistent with the museum’s mission statement: “to present the history of the automobile and its impact on American life and culture using Los Angeles as the prime example.”
“They have sold a lot of wonderful cars that Bob Petersen was very fond of,” said Buddy Pepp, who retired last year and was replaced by Karges.
The Petersen sold 12 cars for a combined $8.5 million at Gooding & Co.’s Amelia Island Auction in March. They included a 1995 Ferrari F50 that went for $1.375 million, a 2006 Bugatti Veyron (the first sold in the U.S.) that brought $924,000, and a 1990 Ferrari F40 that fetched $715,000.
The August auction in Burbank will include the 1963 VW Beetle that starred as Herbie in the 1968 Disney movie, The Love Bug. More distressing to some of the critics are the hot rods being sold, saying that the museum is walking away from California’s hot rod culture at the heart of the mission statement. A ’32 Ford highboy that did 142.97 at Bonneville in 1954, and a Boyd Coddington built ’33 Ford Custom Victoria are among the cars for sale.
While the sale may distress some enthusiasts, it’s also an opportunity for serious collectors to buy significant cars that have the provenance of one of the world’s great car collections, something that doesn’t happen very often.