First published:

SF Weekly | August 30, 2006

 

"I remember my first reaction was, 'Can these be real?'"

 

-- curator Kathleen Berrin

 

 

 

 

 

Top: Pyramid of the Sun, Teotihuacan, Mexico

 

Above: Bird figure with shield and spear

 

Below: A young Harald Wagner with one of his watercolors

 

Bottom: Spot at Teotihuacan from which

the Wagner trove was believed

to have been looted

 

 

 

Looted

How an eccentric San Francisco architect with a penchant for pre-Columbian relics rocked the antiquities world to become the de Young Museum's most mysterious donor

 

By Ron Russell

 

When the renovated de Young Museum reopened amid much fanfare over its architecture last October, a new gallery devoted entirely to its collection of spectacular wall murals from the ancient city of Teotihuacan — Mexico's most revered archaeological shrine — garnered relatively little attention. Renowned as the finest collection of its kind outside Mexico, the more than two dozen ancient wall fragments had been locked in storage during the five years that the de Young was being rebuilt. For decades previously, most of the pieces had been exhibited only rarely, if at all.

 

The murals, whose surfaces bear striking images of priest-deities, animals, warrior-birds, feathered serpents, and flowering trees in hues of red, blue, green, and gold, are one of the most unlikely gifts of antiquities ever tendered to a major American museum. Looted in the early 1960s from the pre-Aztec ruins near Mexico City famous for their sacred pyramids, the frescoes were the unsolicited gift of an eccentric San Francisco architect named Harald Wagner.

 

Wagner had kept the precious adobe frescoes — some still in crates — in a three-story commercial building downtown, where he lived with only a rudimentary kitchen, no bedroom, and sparse furnishings other than fine antiques, those who knew him say. Stunned art experts, summoned by the executor of his estate, encountered the frescoes there along with a trove of other art objects from around the world after his death in 1976 at the age of 73.

 

He lived alone and had no close relatives.

 

His handwritten will stipulated that the purloined collection — which was later determined to have been stripped from an underground chamber near the famed Pyramid of the Sun — be donated to the de Young. No one was more surprised than museum officials, who knew nothing of Wagner or the murals, and whose acceptance of the gift triggered a legal skirmish with the Mexican government over the frescoes' ownership.

 

That struggle ended amicably and with the de Young winning kudos from the arts establishments of both countries after voluntarily repatriating to Mexico nearly two-thirds of the 70 pieces that were originally part of the Wagner cache.

 

With the opening of the "new" de Young, the murals — long considered to be among the museum's most underappreciated treasures — "are finally receiving the attention they deserve," says Kathleen Berrin, its chief curator for the arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas.

 

But 30 years after his death, the man presumed to have smuggled the frescoes into the United States and whose generous gift took the de Young and the rest of the museum world by surprise, remains something of a riddle. Few people outside museum curators and academics concerned with pre-Columbian artifacts have ever even heard of him.

 

"To a lot of people he's probably just a name on a wall," says Paul Newman, 70, the attorney who helped settle the estate three decades ago, referring to a plaque that accompanies the museum collection.

 

Part of why so little is known about Wagner is that he appears to have wanted it that way. Aside from a few crude receipts, he left almost no papers concerning the relics, no word on how they were acquired, and no clue as to how he got them to San Francisco — topics that have long fueled speculation among those with an interest in the murals.

 

Probate records and interviews with people who knew Wagner, including some who have never spoken publicly about him previously, reveal a complex, generous man who rose from relatively humble beginnings in Oregon to find prosperity as an architect and businessman in San Francisco. Fascinated by art and artists of many stripes, Wagner counted the late renowned California muralist Arthur Mathews and his wife, Lucia, among his closest friends.

 

Considering the newfound prominence afforded the murals at the museum, one of those former friends says she would like to set the record straight on Wagner's behalf.

 

"To the extent that people have heard of Harald at all, he is probably misunderstood," says Georgia Dunlavy, 79, who knew Wagner from the time she was a young artist working on Treasure Island in the 1940s. "One thing he was not, was an art thief."

 

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When Tom Seligman first saw the murals, he was astonished. "It was mind-boggling," recalls the de Young's former assistant director, who is now director of the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University. Seligman was among a contingent from the museum summoned by the estate's executor to the late architect's residence at the edge of the city's historical Jackson Square district after his death.

 

The distinctive red-brick commercial building at the southwest corner of Pacific Avenue and Battery Street, which Wagner owned and had used as his principal residence since the early 1960s, resembled an art warehouse more than a home. Besides having no bedroom (Wagner appeared to have slept on a divan), its makeshift "kitchen," tucked in the corner of a long, open space in the basement, consisted of little more than a stove, refrigerator, and a couple of cabinets.

 

There were artifacts everywhere, including precious Korean wooden figures, a Chinese Wei Dynasty pottery horse, bronze buddhas from India and Thailand, scroll paintings, antique furniture — even a turquoise-encrusted skull from Latin America. "There was so much stuff there was hardly a place to sit; you could barely walk around it," recalls Paul Newman, the attorney, who ushered the de Young troop through the premises for their first glimpse at the museum's gift.

 

Most astonishing of all were the Teotihuacan murals. "They were all over the place," says Kathleen Berrin, the de Young curator. "I remember my first reaction was, 'Can these be real?'"

 

What the museum team encountered were 70 pre-Columbian mural fragments, ranging in size from a few inches to 14 feet in length and whose collective weight was almost 3,400 pounds. Wagner had affixed small pieces to corkboard frames and hung them on the walls. Larger pieces were sprawled across the floor. In the basement, where he had begun to "restore" some of the relics, pieces were laid out on plywood tables supported by sawhorses.

 

The fragments, about three to five inches thick, are segments from ancient walls fashioned from volcanic material and covered with a thick layer of lime painted in fresco, similar to the technique used by the Italians. Among the images are elaborate priest-deities juxtaposed with feathered serpents spewing water from their mouths and flanked with flowering trees.

 

Karl Taube, an anthropologist at UC Riverside and a leading expert in decoding the symbols of Teotihuacan imagery, calls the Wagner fragments "some of the best examples of their kind" in depicting what he and other scholars describe as a precursor to Quetzalcoatl, the rain god of the ancient Aztecs.

 

Although associated with the Aztecs, who occupied it beginning about 1300 and performed ritual human sacrifice there, Teotihuacan was founded by a civilization that predated them. It flourished between 200 and 600 A.D. before being mysteriously abandoned. Nestled in a once-remote valley about 40 miles northeast of Mexico City, the ruins have long been among Mexico's most popular tourist attractions.

 

Teotihuacan began to be excavated in the 1880s. But, incredibly, much of the sprawling archaeological zone remains unprobed and its artwork undeciphered, which is why the unexpected emergence of the Wagner murals — regarded as priceless by art experts — created such a stir.

 

For the de Young, the bequest was all the more amazing considering the circumstances. No one at the museum had ever had any dealings with Wagner and thus no one knew of his intent to leave the museum such an important gift. Perhaps not expecting much, museum officials exhibited such little enthusiasm after being told of the bequest that Newman, the estate's attorney, says he was annoyed. "In fairness, looking back on it, until they actually came to see it, no one at the de Young could have imagined how significant it was," he says.

 

That changed the day of the Jackson Square visit. "After we looked at it and sort of composed ourselves, our attention immediately turned to getting [the murals] to a secure location," says Seligman. The city attorney's office, representing the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, of which the de Young is a part, quickly arranged to have the frescoes transferred to a museum warehouse while the estate's affairs were being settled in probate court.

 

The frescoes languished in sealed crates for nearly three years while the legal struggle ensued between the Fine Arts Museums and the Mexican government.Under a 1934 Mexican law, pre-Columbian art of the kind the murals represent — chunks of adobe wall paintings removed from ancient dwellings that the law defines as "immovable" objects — was decreed to be the property of the Mexican government.

 

The law is unenforceable outside Mexico, and its intent was conveniently ignored by museums in the United States for decades, until 1971, when the U.S. and Mexico ratified a bilateral treaty calling for the repatriation of such art objects. (That same year, UNESCO, the United Nations' cultural arm, approved a similar treaty.)

 

After word of the Wagner murals spread, the Mexicans, with support from the Carter Administration, pressed hard for their return. At one point, a U.S. Customs official insinuated that his agency might seize them. "My recollection is that's when I said something like, 'Over my dead body,'" recalls former deputy City Attorney Judith Teichman, who spearheaded the legal effort on behalf of the de Young.

 

No one has ever denied that the frescoes were looted from Mexico. But the 1971 treaty with Mexico was not retroactive. In the end, the museum was able to prove to a Superior Court judge's satisfaction that Wagner indeed possessed the murals in the United States prior to the treaty's taking effect.

 

The de Young's voluntary repatriation occurred in 1985 following a joint effort by conservators from the museum and Mexico to restore the murals. Some of the returned pieces are housed at the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City; others are in a museum at Teotihuacan. Although there are still occasional rumblings within Mexico's contentious cultural establishment for the return of all the frescoes, the repatriation has widely been hailed as a model for how museums should deal with treasures smuggled from other countries.

 

Teichman had obtained affidavits from Wagner friends and associates attesting to having seen the artwork at the Jackson Square residence before 1971. Wagner's records, such as they were, were of little help. The former city attorney acknowledges that "the three or four receipts that turned up weren't very impressive. They were basically scribbles on small pads, the kind that you could buy at a five-and-dime store."

 

The scribbles didn't reveal much, least of all a seller. There was nothing among Wagner's scant papers to provide a clue as to when or how he encountered the murals or how they passed into the United States. There was, however, a notarized statement asserting his ownership of them, which Teichman believes Wagner executed "in 1970 or 1971" — about the time that the treaties affecting pre-Columbian artifacts were being drawn up.

 

But those documents appear to have vanished. They are not among materials preserved in the probate court record. The City Attorney's office, the de Young, Newman, and James McDonald, another lawyer who helped settle the estate, disclaim any knowledge as to what may have happened to them. "The thing that struck me was the small amount of paperwork Wagner left behind," says Seligman. "I suspect he knew that what he was doing wasn't exactly right, that it was sort of oily-edgy, and for that reason he purposely didn't leave much documentation."

 

+++

 

Those who knew the secretive art donor weren't surprised that he apparently left no records about how he obtained the murals. "He was an intensely private person who lived a compartmentalized life," says Mary Caraker, 76, whose late husband, Emmett, was a close friend. Wagner was godfather to one of the couple's children.

 

As an example of Wagner's guardedness, she says that despite his and her husband's 30-year friendship, Emmett Caraker "never knew, or, at least, never acknowledged" that the architect with whom he shared an interest in real estate and antique cars, was gay, as several of Wagner's former friends have affirmed.

 

Sarah Bossatti, whose late physician father was a Wagner pal for more than 50 years and who says she thought of him "like a Dutch uncle," offers a similar observation. "Everyone who knew 'Wag,' as we called him, really only got to be exposed to certain facets of his life," she says. "That's just the way he lived."

 

She and others describe Wagner as affable, inquisitive, with eclectic tastes and forever trying new things. He could also be charmingly eccentric, as when he once curried camels at San Francisco's zoo and spun the wool into a camel-hair coat. Bossatti still has a ring Wagner fashioned as a gift for her mother, made from a mastodon tusk.

 

As a teenager living in Oregon, she recalls when Wagner drove up to see her father driving a blue Duesenberg sedan that he said had belonged to a Nazi officer. "It still had the pistol holder on the side of the door." Another time, after she and her then husband had moved to the East Bay, and her parents were visiting, Bossatti says Wagner drove across the Bay Bridge in a Model T convertible to pick them up.

 

At various times in his life, he climbed mountains, taught yoga, excelled as a pianist and painter, learned basket-weaving, and, not least of all, collected art. The latter was something he could afford after World War II, friends say, the result of a Midas touch for buying and selling commercial real estate. In the '50s, he bought an old hacienda in the Mexican state of Jalisco, became fluent in Spanish, and for the remainder of his life, split his time between San Francisco and Mexico.

 

Slender and fit, and an impeccable dresser, "he was the kind of person you automatically tended to notice when he entered a room, yet there wasn't a self-important bone in his body," says Georgia Dunlavy, who met Wagner when he was doing design work for the Navy at Treasure Island during World War II and considered him a mentor.

 

Wagner grew up in Falls City, Ore., a lumber town southwest of Portland. His German-speaking parents, while not wealthy, were among its most prominent citizens. His father, Jacob, an Austrian immigrant, built the local civic center. It bore the name Wagner Hall until World War I, when anti-German sentiment prompted the town fathers to change it to Victory Hall, says amateur historian Arlie Holt, 77, who has lived in the area his entire life. Wagner's mother, Amelia, reveled in music and art and taught her son to master the piano at an early age, Holt says.

 

After studying architecture at the University of Oregon, Wagner arrived in San Francisco in 1926 and landed a job with one of the city's most influential architects, William Faville, who, with earlier partner Walter Bliss, had designed the St. Francis Hotel and a raft of other city landmarks.

 

By the end of World War II, he had a house in Sausalito and was firmly ensconced in the community's art scene. Through his mentor, Faville — who, like Wagner, was an avid watercolorist — he became active in the Sierra Club and also gained access to the exclusive all-male Bohemian Club, former friends say.

 

It was also through Faville that Wagner became close friends with Arthur Mathews, the San Francisco artist considered to be California's greatest muralist of the first half of the 20th century, and his artist wife, Lucia Mathews.

 

Wagner, Faville, and the Mathews spent a great deal of time together, including expeditions to the Monterey Peninsula and up and down the state's Coastal Range. They frequently set up easels side by side and painted the same landscapes, says Harvey L. Jones, senior curator of art at the Oakland Museum of California.

 

Wagner and Lucia Mathews remained close after Arthur's death in 1945 (Faville died two years later) and Wagner purchased or was given numerous of Arthur's works, Jones says. After Lucia was declared incompetent in 1952, Wagner bought a "substantial number" of the couple's other paintings and decorative furnishings from her estate, he says.

 

It was a prescient move.

 

Although interest in and appreciation for Arthur Mathews' haunting murals (many of them scenes of the state's hills and coastline) has revived in recent years, his work had fallen out of favor. Wagner's efforts to collect it "was aimed at perpetuating Arthur and Lucia's legacy, which he felt was underappreciated," says Jones, who has written a book about the couple's art and is overseeing a major retrospective of their work at the Oakland Museum, to open Oct. 28. "Time has shown that he was right."

 

Jones met with Wagner several times in 1972, including once at the Jackson Square residence, after the architect agreed to act as a consultant for a Mathews exhibition that year. The still-new Oakland museum had scored a coup in 1965 when Wagner, who had become friends with its director, agreed to sell the museum more than a dozen Arthur Mathews paintings for $50,000. It was a modest sum, even then. Wagner gave the museum 141 other works, including Lucia Mathews paintings and handcrafted furniture pieces for which the couple was also renowned.

 

During one session, he says, Wagner expressed displeasure at the de Young for its having rejected Lucia Mathews' offer years earlier to donate a number of her late husband's paintings, which, in hindsight, had been a colossal curatorial blunder.

 

Wagner also had another reason for being upset with the de Young, or so he thought. In the late 1960s he had apparently believed that he had offered to sell the Teotihuacan murals to the de Young. In reality, Wagner's overture was to a director of the Asian Art Museum, which, at the time, was housed at the old de Young even though it was a separate entity, says Kathleen Berrin, the curator, who first revealed the snafu in Feathered Serpents and Flowering Trees, a 1988 art book she edited about the murals. The Asian's director, who understandably had no use for pre-Columbian relics, apparently failed to pass the word to anyone at the de Young.

 

Jones recalls Wagner as "very lively, entertaining, and personable." At the residence, whose hardwood floors were painted black and polished to resemble marble, he was asked to remove his shoes and given felt slippers before being ushered to a third-floor living area. "It was really quite a remarkable place," Jones says. "He had a lot of Mathews material all around and I remember these large ship models suspended from the ceiling like chandeliers."

 

Jones didn't tour the entire residence. He didn't notice any pre-Columbian relics, and, he says, Wagner didn't mention any.

 

Like others, his first glimpse of the frescoes came after Wagner's death, when, as the Oakland Museum's representative, he was escorted through the residence to locate and identify various art items Wagner had willed to it.

 

"I remember being in the basement and whoever I was with took a crowbar and pried open a crate and there they were," Jones says. "I remember thinking, 'Is that really what I think it is?'"

 

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Wagner's will, scribbled on 12 pages of typing paper with a felt-tipped pen, wasn't a document one might expect of someone preparing to give away priceless pre-Columbian art. Drawn up two years before his death, it contained no hint as to why he had chosen to bequeath such a prize to a museum that he believed had snubbed him and Lucia Mathews.

 

Considering the brouhaha with Mexico that Wagner must have known the bequest would cause, some who knew him, including Jones, have long speculated that it may have been prompted as much by impishness as generosity. "It's something no one can ever know for sure, but I've always felt he knew that he would be giving the de Young a bit of a headache," Jones says.

 

Indeed, as probate documents show, for nearly a year after Wagner's death, the museum left open the possibility of not accepting the frescoes, for fear of being bogged down in costly litigation with Mexico.

 

The probate records provide what sparse information remains about the final part of Wagner's life. Wagner, who died of liver cancer, left few debts other than the medical bills that ensued from his last three weeks spent at UCSF Mount Zion, known then as Mount Zion Hospital and Medical Center. Records show that his remains were cremated at Cypress Lawn Cemetery in Colma.

 

Besides the murals, Wagner left the de Young much of his Far East sculpture, paintings, and porcelain, some of which wound up at the Asian Museum. The remainder of his much-prized Mathews collection went to the Oakland Museum, along with the eclectic furnishings in his residence. They included a rare Steinway grand piano, crafted in the 1880s, which had belonged to the Mathews, and which adorns the Oakland Museum's art gallery.

 

Wagner's hacienda, on a riverbank outside a 16th-century mining village and whose main house friends say the architect faithfully restored to its pre-Mexican Revolution glory, went to friends in Mexico. He left $50,000 in a trust honoring his parents, with the interest earmarked to buy books in perpetuity for the library in his Oregon hometown.

 

The bulk of his money, including $800,000 from the sale of the Jackson Square residence, he chose to divide equally between 13 people — a lone cousin and 12 friends from different eras of his life. Few, if any, of the beneficiaries knew each other. Most expressed surprise, if not shock, that Wagner had remembered them in his will, says Newman, the estate's attorney.

 

Georgia Dunlavy, the former Treasure Island technical artist, and who was among the beneficiaries, saw Wagner once during the last decade of his life, at the Jackson Square residence in "about 1964 or 1965."

 

"I had just come back from Europe and Harald sent me a telegram inviting me to visit," she says. She recalls his enthusiasm over the pre-Columbian relics, but says he didn't say where they came from or how he got them. "He was excited at the prospect of restoring them," she says. "He said it was going to be a big project and that it would probably take years."

 

She wasn't the only beneficiary who knew about the murals.

 

Tommy Brown was someone whom the estate's executors had a hard time locating after Wagner's death. According to probate records, an old Wagner address book had yielded a 1966 note that said, "Tommy Brown, Ward 115, San Francisco General Hospital, 22nd and Portrero." A professional "heir finder" who traced him to San Diego knew right away that he had found his man.

 

According to the finder's affidavit, Brown's first words upon learning Wagner had died, were, "What did they do with the frescoes?"

 

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One person who has never ceased to be curious about Wagner is renowned archaeologist Rene Millon, 85, who is retired from the University of Rochester. Having made mapping and excavating Teotihuacan his life's work, Millon and his archaeologist wife, the late Clara Millon, were among the experts the de Young assembled in 1979 to assess the Wagner trove.

 

Experts already knew that the relics had come from Teotihuacan. But in an Indiana Jones-like moment in 1983 — in which he looked down next to a cactus and found a piece of adobe with painting on one side — Millon discovered the precise spot from which looters had taken the Wagner relics.

 

"I knew immediately what it was," he recalls. "It was like finding a piece of a puzzle."

 

His discovery, a small Tassel Headdress figure that matched what he had seen in San Francisco, led to a nearby looter's trench that had been crudely filled in after the Wagner artwork was ripped from the ancient walls beneath the surface. The spot was in an unexcavated compound of ancient residences, about 500 yards east of the famous Pyramid of the Moon.

 

With funds from the de Young, the Millon team excavated the trench the following summer, exposing the walls from which pillagers had ripped colorful sections of adobe some two decades earlier. Unfortunately, as Wagner may have soon discovered upon spreading out the pieces in his residence, the component parts did not add up to a whole.

 

"The pieces were very crudely removed," says Stephen Mellor, a former de Young conservationist who is now a curator at the Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art. "The looters, whoever they were, tore away what came easily. They weren't interested in preserving anything intact."

 

Millon's discovery was "a remarkable piece of archaeological detective work," says George Cowgill, an Arizona State University anthropologist who has also worked at Teotihuacan. He, too, has long been intrigued by the lore surrounding the Wagner relics. "You have to understand that back in the '60s, when this stuff was looted, and before the Mexican government began doing more to secure the site, there was still quite a bit of stuff laying around on the ground," he says. "Kids were selling it to tourists."

 

"It was a different era," says Clemency Coggins, a professor of archaeology at Boston University, who helped draw attention to the problem of stolen pre-Columbian artwork in the 1960s. "Sad to say, back when [the Wagner murals] came out of Mexico, U.S. Customs didn't really give it a hard look at the border and many people didn't even think of [relic smuggling] as a crime."

 

Along with tourism at Teotihuacan has come a mushrooming population of mostly impoverished settlers near the ruins. The settlements are so close that "some residents have been known to dig up pre-Columbian artifacts from their yards," says Karl Taube, the UC Riverside anthropologist.

 

In 2000, there was an international outcry after inspectors found an ancient altar just outside the official archaeological zone — beneath a Wal-Mart parking lot.

 

Few people involved with the murals believe that Wagner had anything to do with looting them. Rather, it is assumed that he bought them in Mexico and personally brought them to the United States. Newman, the attorney for the estate, says that based on what relatives of a former Wagner friend, who is now deceased, told him, he "always had the impression that Wagner made multiple trips" to Mexico "and drove the murals to San Francisco himself."

 

But Millon, who first began working at Teotihuacan in the 1950s while still on the faculty at UC Berkeley, suspects otherwise.

 

Based on the accounts of several Mexican nationals, including a man who worked with the archaeologist at Teotihuacan for more than 30 years, Millon believes the murals were trucked to the Panama Canal Zone and shipped to the United States. He says former workers at Teotihuacan told him in 1964 that stolen materials from the then-largely unprotected archaeological site were being spirited to a secret warehouse near the ruins and offered for sale on the black market. He suspects that's where Wagner encountered them.

 

At the time, the Mexican government was working feverishly to complete a major excavation of Teotihuacan's so-called Avenue of the Dead, the road and plaza linking its two largest pyramids, dedicated to the sun and moon. Mexico's then-president, Adolfo Lopez Mateos, wanted the work completed before the end of his six-year term that year and government trucks hauled huge amounts of dirt day and night, Millon says. "If you ask how 3,400 pounds of antiquities could just disappear, the answer, I'm afraid, is very easily."

 

By the next year at the latest, according to Georgia Dunlavy's recollection, the murals were spread out inside Wagner's Jackson Square home. There, they remained out of sight and under the radar of the pre-Columbian art world for more than a decade.

 

If nothing else, Wagner knew how to keep a secret.