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Sandzén Paintings Owned by Salina Public Library Sold at Auction, and Patrons aren’t Happy


In wake of criticism, library board defends decision to part with $280,000 of fine art

By Tim Carpenter


LONE JACK, Missouri — Auctioneer Dirk Soulis opened bidding on a 1929 oil landscape painting by the late Kansas artist Birger Sandzén at a modest $40,000.

Within 45 seconds, bidding surged past $100,000.

“Thank you,” Soulis said while bidders studied the 30-inch by 40-inch treasure of intense color comprised of brushstrokes that left the impression of being chiseled onto canvas. “We have $100,000, asking $110,000. Now, $120,000? Now, $130,000? Thank you. Now, $140,000? Thank you. Do I hear $150,000? Now, $160,000? Asking $170,000. Going once. Asking $170,000. Going twice. Sold, $160,000.”

The “Golden Aspens” painting that blended sky, tree, land and water imagery came from the two-decade sweet spot of Sandzén’s career. It was item No. 18 at Saturday’s auction of regional fine art orchestrated by Soulis Auctions in Lone Jack. This example of work by the artistic icon of Lindsborg — a vast collection of his work can be seen there at the Sandzén Memorial Gallery — was owned by the Salina Public Library.

The revelation about the painting’s owner, at least to folks far removed from Salina, was surpassed only by the fact the library possessed and decided to auction a second Sandzén painting.

The 1921 “Smoky River” oil painting, also signed by Sweden-born Sandzén, exposed contrasts of light and shadow and pulled the eye through trees to that Kansas river bank. It had been purchased directly from the artist in 1921 for the library. The initial installment payment was $50.

“All right, $50,000?” Soulis said for benefit of in-person, online and telephone bidders. “Asking $60,000, $70,000, $80,000. Now, $90,000? Thank you. $100,000? $110,000? Thank you. $120,000? Thank you. Do I hear $130,000? All done? The large, early oil-on-canvas here. A really nice piece. $130,000? Going once, $130,000 twice? Sold, $120,000. Thank you.”

And it was done, much to the consternation of some Salina residents. In days leading to the auction, there was a fierce debate in Saline County about the decision to put the Sandzén paintings up for sale. Community angst was directed at the library’s volunteer board. Artistic appreciation for the valuable paintings was never in doubt, but the library’s decision to surrender the artwork after more than a century of ownership spurred dissent.


A unanimous vote

The Salina Public Library board, led by president Brendan Burke, issued a statement prior to the auction in response to the outcry. The board argued their responsibility was to serve comprehensive interests of the community while making the best use of limited tax funding.

“The library is not equipped to maintain fine art,” the board said. “SPL already needed to restore one of the paintings in our possession. Realizing that the paintings would continue to deteriorate in our care, we considered the options and consulted with the Birger Sandzén Memorial Gallery regarding our questions.”

Potential sale of the paintings was discussed at library board meetings in May and June, but no member of the public offered comment at that time.

Board treasurer Helen Gregg made the motion to sell both paintings. It was seconded by board member Crystal Stuart. The board voted unanimously to make the sale through a well-regarded auction house recommended by the Sandzén gallery.

“Despite what many have stated, this decision was made months ago and with full information on the decision being made available to the public,” the board said. “SPL understands that this decision is not something everyone supports. However, many others support this decision.”

Sandzén, who died in 1954, taught art and languages at Bethany College in Lindsborg for half a century. He was a printmaker and watercolorist, but completed an astonishing 2,890 oil paintings. His subject matter often came from Smoky Hill River Valley in central Kansas.


‘Callous, tone deaf’

Sarah Withanh, who was among those condemning auction of the Sandzén paintings, said the library board’s response to public skepticism was “callous and tone deaf.”  She said the board owed the public transparency, but some board members became “evasive and condescending” when questioned.

“I do not think the folks asking questions are acting in bad faith or trying to embarass the library system they support, but rather they are acting out of a deep concern and care for this community,” Withanh said. “You have given people that don’t want to fund libraries a perfect platform to leach onto.”

She said the library board should have withdrawn the paintings from the auction despite the financial penalty attached.

“These were given as community property,” said Karen Schmidt, who posted objections to Facebook. “Not yours to sell. This is beyond wrong. It should have been moved to the museum, if you couldn’t handle it.”

The auction price of both paintings exceeded the range predicted by Soulis Auctions. The “Smoky River” estimate was $60,000 to $90,000, but the sale topped that value by $30,000. On “Golden Aspens,” the estimate was $80,000 to $120,000. It exceeded that projection by $40,000.


Prized stewardship

Former library employee Catherine Sauceda, who grew up in Salina, said the library board made a mistake by not seeking broad public input on proposals to sell the Sandzén paintings.

“It’s a sad error, and I feel for the whole community, including the board members who, I imagine, were completely caught off guard by the public’s response,” she said. “I further want to stress to the board that it is disrespectful and disingeuous to place blame on the community for not reading the board meeting minutes.”

Janet Huschka Hanson of Salina said the controversy was made worse by lack of news coverage of the library board’s consideration of giving up ownership of the paintings.

She said the library board’s statement indicated members “prized the stewardship of the art piece at the highest level.”

The paintings were sold at an auction offering more than 20 other works by Sandzén, including an array of lithographs. There were at least 20 works by Thomas Hart Benton in the auction. It also featured a handful of pieces by Kansas Capitol muralist John Steuart Curry, including a lithograph of abolitionist John Brown. The catalog had several works by Grant Wood, who painted “American Gothic,” and a lithograph by Salvador Dali.