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They Call Her St. Joan


The Arts Business

THEY CALL HER ST. JOAN

Mike Johnson won't soon forget his first meeting last November with Joan Irvine Smith. Tall and striking in brown tweed jacket and khaki pants, the California land heiress, accompanied by her terriers, Skippy and Sissie, got right to the point: Smith wanted to buy painting--slots of them--and she had heard that Johnson, a former police detective and private investigator specializing in stolen art, could help. Fifteen minutes later, Johnson, to his amazement, started working as Smith's exclusive buyer, at a fat commission.

That hastily arranged deal has proved a bonanza both for Johnson, who has netted more than $1 million, and others in the California art market. In less than nine months, the 58-year-old Smith has bought more than 2,000 paintings by early 20th century California landscape artists. She has plunked down some $15 million, gallery sources say, reviving a market thatthough hot in the 1980shad ground to a halt by 1990, when the local real estate industry took a dive.

BYGONE ERA. Smith's spending, in fact, seemed so miraculous to struggling California landscape art dealers that she is now hailed up and down the state as "St. Joan." Says San Francisco gallery owner David Carlson, with some hyperbole: "Half the dealers in California would have gone bankrupt if she hadn't come into the market."

Along with the boom has come controversy, though. Smith has sent prices for works by William Wendt, Benjamin C. Brown, and other regional plein-air painters--often dismissed as too derivative of the French Impressionists to be taken seriously--through the roof. No one knows what will happen to prices when she stops buying. Experts also question her plans to open both a 60,000-square-foot museum devoted to California Impressionism and an 1,800-square-foot gallery dealing in the genre.

Of late, Smith's buying frenzy has slowed. But she'll be back. She certainly has the wherewithal: Smith--nee Irvine, as in the city, the ranch, and the development company--is flush with $256 million in cash from a 1991 stock sale of the remnants of her family's 100,000-acre spread, a swath of territory that stretched from the Pacific Ocean to the Santa Ana Mountains. She's funneling a good slice of that into art, not as an investment but as a way to preserve the memory of a bygone era. "Looking at these paintings," Smith recently told the Los Angeles Times, "is like stepping back in time to the way Orange County was when I was child." Much of the land has since been bulldozed and developed.

`TOUGH LADY.' Like many art neophytes, Smith started buying on impulse, paying whatever it took. At a Butterfield & Butterfield auction last February, Smith purchased about 100 of the 200 works on the block. As for the galleries, "she comes with a smile and a checkbook--two good things," says Whitney Ganz, director of William A. Karges Fine Arts in Santa Monica. During the winter and spring, Smith and Johnson would routinely put in 18-hour days, six days a week, traveling the coast from San Diego to Santa Barbara in her beige Mercedes station wagon.

As ecstatic dealers looked on, Smith would tear through their inventory, sorting paintings into piles of "keeps" and "rejects." The "keeps" stack was almost always bigger. Then, it was on to the next gallery. Johnson negotiated prices later by phone. "I worked my butt off," recalls Johnson, who has since had a falling-out with Smith over what paintings to buy and what prices to pay. "She's one tough lady to keep up with." With word out that Smith was buying, the paintings soon came to her. Truckloads of art showed up at her horse ranch in San Juan Capistrano from dealers as far away as Chicago and New York.

Smith bought so many works that, for a time, the overflow was stored in Johnson's house, cramming the halls, the kitchen, and even the bathrooms. She has since refined her buying to the major names, dealers saybut not her spending habits. Smith recently bought a large Guy Rose canvas for $400,000 and a Granville Redmond for $200,000--both record prices, sources say. Three years ago, similar paintings were fetching less than half those amounts.

Lesser works have also enjoyed a hefty price run-up, sometimes decidedly opportunistically. One Maurice Braun work, bought "on approval" in San Francisco for $50,000, turned up a few days later, marked up to $65,000, in the same Laguna Beach gallery where Smith bought her Rose and Redmond treasures. Smith paid the price, confirms dealer Ray Redfern, who says he sold the painting for a Santa Barbara client.

Still, Smith is no pushover. Always strong-willed, she changed her name from Athalie to Joan at age 5, according to family lore. As a child, she adored her imperious grandfather, James Jr., and he in turn left Joan a 22% stake in the foundation he had set up to manage his land. That made Joan, then 14, the ranch's largest individual shareholder. Ten years later, in 1957, Smith gained a foundation board seat. At her first meeting, the young blonde accused several other members, all old pals of her grandfather, of using their seats to enhance their own real estate dealings and blasted them for paying puny dividends. A series of quiet resignations ensued.

NO LIP. The victory gave Smith an appetite for bigger battles, culminating in a fight for control against the board and Mobil Oil Corp. She won, along with Orange County developer Donald Bren and other investors. But when Bren later bought out the others in the early 1980s, Smith held out for three times his offer. The legal battle dragged on until 1991, when a court awarded her $256 million.

Now, Smith is moving forward with her museum and gallery with the same drive. "I own the paintings, and I don't want to wait around," she said recently. Others, though, question Smith's choice of a museum director, Jean Stern, who lacks academic credentials. He last worked as a Beverly Hills art dealer and his brother George is an influential purveyor of California art. Asks one museum director: "Does she want to build a respected institution or just another vanity museum?" And they deride her decision to open a commercial gallery, too. Many say that's how she intends to get rid of her mistaken purchases. If so, she may have to swallow losses once the market settles to pre-St. Joan levels.

Smith isn't worried. She may even buy back the family ranch house as a museum site. Once, her grandfather strolled on the mansion's veranda, gazing out over his cattle, crops, and vineyards. These days, St. Joan is busy building a canvas empire. For now, that's the best news for some California Impressionist dealers since the invention of paint.Eric Schine in Laguna Beach, Calif.


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