Harry Bertoia, “Sculpture Screens from the First National Bank of Miami,” melt-coated brass over steel, in 10 parts, executed in 1959. (Courtesy of Sotheby’s “Bertoia: A Celebration of Sound and Motion” auction exhibition)

When Kim Tanzer became dean of the University of Virginia’s School of Architecture in 2009, she had an overarching goal: Create a doctoral program for the school, a fully funded program that could lure the best students.

And she had an immediate problem: Storage units full of a massive sculpture that had been given to the school by a major donor. She looked at them right away. The 10 pieces were dusty and sticky with cobwebs, but the bigger issue was their sheer size. They had been stuffed into storage for more than a decade, despite the ongoing expense, because, with 10 ten-foot-tall-by-five-feet-wide panels, they couldn’t just hang the art on a wall with a little plaque next to it.

What lurks in university storage? All sorts of things, from weird anatomical specimens to forgotten manuscripts to fraying theater costumes to Picassos. In this case — as is often the case, when things get found, sometimes decades later — Tanzer wasn’t at all sure what they had.

“Let’s just say it was a very unusual gift,” she said. “People give things to a university all the time. They’re usually smaller. Much smaller.”

So began a quest to either rid themselves of a giant headache — or find the perfect setting for what might just be an important mid-century work.

It was a strange addition to her day job; even as Tanzer was working toward creating the doctoral program, she was researching mid-century design, navigating donor intent and title issues, and dipping a toe into the high-stakes world of international art auctions.

The pieces had been commissioned in the 1950s by the famous architect and interior designer Florence Knoll for a showpiece bank in Miami. The artist was Harry Bertoia, the Italian-born sculptor whose iconic diamond-shaped wire chair is still one of the most recognizable symbols of mid-century design. His best-known sculptures were the “Sonambient” pieces designed to make music, or at least noises, as wind and weather struck them; this was not one of those, and was intended to remain (silently) inside.

[Why Harry Bertoia’s ‘Sonambient’ art still resonates.]

In photos from the time, the sculpture – reminiscent of a stand of trees – glistens in the soaring bank lobby with its sleek leather chairs, the perfect setting for a scene from “Mad Men.

When the bank was torn down, an alumnus of the school, an entrepreneur, real-estate developer and art collector, Victor Elmaleh, bought the sculpture and displayed it in Los Angeles. In 2000, he donated it to the school, hoping at least part of it could be displayed there. But it was just too big.

Tanzer tried, installing part of it in Campbell Hall. “My dear students didn’t treat them badly but — they’re rough on the environment,” she said diplomatically. “And these are valuable. I thought they needed a safer setting.”

Tanzer knew Elmaleh had tried, without success, to sell it. Each piece was so large on its own, and, if it were really a Bertoia, she knew it probably would be a bad idea to break it up. (“If  you have ever watched ‘Antiques Road Show’,” she said, “– you’ve got seven Chippendale chairs and the eighth is gone. I didn’t want to be the one to break the set by selling them individually.”)

Every step was tricky. “No one at the university had dealt with something like this before,” Tanzer said. “Everything from, ‘How do we get them out of storage into the building?’ to ‘How do we get them appraised?’ ‘How do we make sure the title is in the shape it needs to be in?’ We had to feel our way every step of the way.”

With her husband, an art collector, helping, she researched the pieces. She tracked down Val Bertoia, who not only verified that it was one of his father’s sculptures, but showed them an old photo of the two of them standing in front of it.


Val Bertoia authenticating the sculpture as a work by his father, at U-Va.’s School of Architecture in 2012. (Photo by Michael Bailey)

Authenticity verified, title issues resolved, permission granted to sell all 10 parts of the work.

If they could.

They chose an auction house, and Sotheby’s installed a month-long exhibit around the sculptures. Many of the other things sold. Not the Bertoia sculpture.

“I was very, very nervous,” Tanzer said. Her deanship was to end in a few months, and technically, the doctoral program had been approved and finalized. But they still needed real funding.

With a month to go, she got a call from New York: They had an offer for the Bertoia.

Tanzer asked for more money. And got it.

She had felt a little sad when workers removed the sculpture for the sale. She had grown to love it, and the view through the brass-coated steel stylized “leaves” to the leaves of the trees on the grounds through the window behind it, and the thought of the artist’s progression from literal representation to something more abstract.

But she was elated. They sold the sculpture on her last day as dean.

Not for the $200,000 a collector had offered when she first started the job. The sale price was $1,050,000.

And the doctoral program was funded.