United States

1940, ‘New Deal' Government Painting Shows Up at Oakland Auction

There are lots of things that get stolen in Oakland. Cars. Money. Iphones.

It's not every day that a New Deal painting, created in 1940 and the property of the U.S. government, is recovered from the wrong hands.

But that's what happened this summer, when the General Services Administration Office of the Inspector General in Washington, D.C. got an email tip about a government painting being improperly put up for sale at Clars Auction Gallery in Oakland, according to Assistant Special Agent in Charge, Mike Ramos.

When Ramos showed up at the Telegraph Avenue gallery on Aug. 21, he asked the auction staff if he could peel back the label on a painting called "Interior" by Minnesota artist Bob Brown, showing an impoverished room. The staff graciously allowed him access to the water color, and let him take off the protective backing. "Lo and behold," Ramos said. "There it was."

The WPA label, which stands for Works Progress Administration, was clearly in sight, and Ramos confiscated the work on Sept. 2 to be recirculated in the GSA's Fine Arts program. [[ 330753992, C]] That means the painting will likely show up in a federal building or a "suitable" institution somewhere in Oakland or close by, he said. WPA paintings, about 200,000 of them, were created on behalf of the federal government during the New Deal of the 1930s and 1940s, and many have been lost to the public. Ramos' office is behind tracking them down.

Ramos said that the Pacific Rim Regional Office in San Francisco has recovered about 200 such WPA paintings since 2011, and nationally, more than 400 such paintings, since 2001. The government does not officially put a price tag on them, Ramos said, as they were never intended for sale.

The "Interior" painting was selling at the Oakland gallery for $2,000, Ramos said, but he declined to put a modern day value on it.

The auction staff are not in any trouble, Ramos said, and neither is the Northern California man who bought the piece recently at a garage sale and willingly forfeited any money he spent on it.

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