By Erin Sherbert
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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."
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.