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Neglected Treasures 

A famed Mexican artist painted six murals for the 1939 World's Fair in S.F. One famously disappeared. The others have practically been ignored.

Wednesday, Jan 16 2008
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Williams was relieved. Having been snatched from oblivion and restored, Covarrubias' surviving World's Fair handiwork would be — for a time, at least — safe and secure, not to mention admired, while displayed at some of Mexico's leading cultural institutions.

The artwork was packed off to Mexico, as quietly as the mystery mural had disappeared four decades earlier.

Within art circles, Covarrubias' famously missing mural elicits both fascination and frustration. If the painting (consisting of 12 separate panels) had disappeared in the immediate aftermath of the Exposition, it wouldn't have shocked anyone. The World's Fair was dismantled in haste, even as the Navy prepared to procure the island for use during World War II.

But unlike numerous other pieces of art from the fair — including some relatively large sculptures — that are known to have become "lost" when the Exposition closed, the mural didn't vanish until long after it left Treasure Island.

The caricaturist, artist, and anthropologist executed the murals over several months before the fair began after agreeing to travel from Mexico with Cowan for the princely sum of $1,000 per month. The murals adorned the Exposition's largest pavilion, Pacific House. The artist's sponsors with Pacific House arranged the couple's accommodations at the Plaza Hotel on Union Square.

Pacific House was more than a mere pavilion. It was a nonprofit whose board members included Bay Area social and business luminaries who hosted visiting dignitaries from around the world. Its chairwoman, Leslie Van Ness Denman, was an art enthusiast and the wife of William Denman, the presiding federal judge for the Ninth District.

Casting about for somewhere to display the spectacular, if oversize, artworks after the fair, Denman and her board in 1941 found a prestigious taker in the American Museum of Natural History in New York. It assigned the murals a choice spot in its towering 77th St. lobby.

But in 1953, the museum remodeled the lobby and placed the murals in storage. Pacific House offered to donate the murals to the museum, provided that they would be displayed permanently, a condition to which museum managers couldn't agree.

For five years, the paintings languished in storage in New York. Finally, in 1959, Pacific House — which by then existed essentially in name only, and whose sole function was as legal steward of the murals — notified the museum that it had decided to donate the artwork to the now-defunct World Trade Center at the San Francisco Ferry Building.

Enter intrigue.

That only five of the six murals were ever installed at the Ferry Building is easily explainable: There was no room to hang a sixth painting. Artist Eduardo Pineda, former director of education at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, has long been fascinated by the disappearance. He believes the folks at Pacific House surely realized there was a space shortage beforehand.

Or did they?

While researching her book, Williams interviewed officials at the American Museum of Natural History, including its then-director, in the early 1990s. She says they "dug up every piece of paper they could find related to the maps, which wasn't much." The museum's records include a notation that six murals were shipped to San Francisco. But the records offer few details, including who was responsible for transporting them or even how they were shipped, she says.

Williams finds it difficult to imagine that the mystery mural would have stayed in New York; nor does she think it was lost or stolen in transit. In either scenario, she believes the stellar citizens of Pacific House — who exhibited interest in the paintings when they could have easily left them in the museum's care — would have voiced public concern if one of the artworks had not made it to San Francisco, something for which there is no evidence.

Interest in the mural's disappearance revived briefly in 2001 after the hubbub over the paintings at the Ferry Building. There was even a renewed push to locate the mural after the head of the Mexican Cultural Institute, a government agency, came to San Francisco and publicly exhorted port officials to look for it.

The Arts Commission led the search. A 1959 internal memo says that commission staffers were "unable to find any archive for the World Trade Center to see if they have a paper trail of acceptance or record of what works were received." The state offered little help. An archivist with the California State Museum in Sacramento told the commission that while the existing murals appeared on an old property list for the Ferry Building, there was no record of a sixth painting.

With little to go on, the Arts Commission's search was reduced to a staffer who visited Pier 50 (the Port Commission's primary storage area) to ask workers if they had run across any old crates containing art.

"It's one of those mysteries where there is little left to us but to speculate," Pineda says. Along with others who've studied the disappearance, he believes it "highly unlikely" that the mural was merely lost, either in New York or in transit, citing the Museum of Natural History's reputation and the artwork's sheer size.

Pineda speculates that there may have been some "horse trading" on the part of people at Pacific House once they learned that not all the paintings would fit at the Ferry Building, regardless of when they came to realize it.

"These people obviously cared enough about the maps to have them returned to San Francisco to a public venue when the easy thing would have been to give them to the museum," he says. "Once they realized that there wasn't enough space [at the Ferry Building], it could be that someone decided that the sixth map would be better off in a private collection."

About The Author

Ron Russell

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