Petersen Museum Auctions Historic Vehicles to Raise Money for Renovations

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UPDATE: Attorney General Kamala Harris investigates after Robert Stack's 1957 Mercedes Benz and Bill "Bojangles" Robinson's Deusenberg are sold to help pay for a $20 million Art Deco revamp of the Wilshire Boulevard facility.

This story first appeared in the Sept. 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. 

Hollywood backstories are standard equipment for some historic cars that the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles has auctioned in a controversial bid to help fund a renovation of the facility.

While crown jewels like Steve McQueen's 1957 XKSS Jaguar escaped going on the block, among the approximately 100 cars from the museum's collection considered expendable were a rare 1957 Mercedes-Benz 300SL formerly owned by the late Robert Stack and a 1935 Duesenberg owned by the storied African-American dancer Bill "Bojangles" Robinson.

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The Mercedes, a gift from producer Desi Arnaz on the occasion of Stack's 1960 best actor Emmy for The Untouchables, sold at an early August auction in Burbank for $808,500; the Bojangles Duesenberg went for $594,000 at a March auction in Florida. The museum would not confirm whether several other cars offered for auction in Burbank were from its collection, but a review of the official catalog and other sources indicate that they included a 1968 Excalibur Series Phaeton owned by Phyllis Diller, which sold for $24,200, a 1963 Studebaker Avanti R-1 Coupe owned by Dick Van Dyke ($29,700) and a 1954 Rolls-Royce Silver Dawn owned by actor Richard Ney ($36,300).

The culling of a quarter of the museum's 400-car collection, first reported by the Los Angeles Times, provoked an outcry from auto enthusiasts and an investigation by California Attorney General Kamala Harris into the propriety of the sales. (A Petersen spokesperson stated that the museum is no longer under investigation; the Attorney General's office declined to comment.)

On Aug. 18, Peter Mullin, chairman of the Petersen board, defended the sales while unveiling details of the museum's proposed $20 million renovation at the Concours d'Elegance auto show in Pebble Beach, Calif. Mullin said that the auctioned cars were redundant or excessively expensive to maintain and that proceeds would only be used to improve the museum's galleries and restore its remaining cars.

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The Petersen hasn't said whether it will sell more cars, but among those stored in its underground vault are the Ferrari 308 GTS convertible driven by Tom Selleck in Magnum, P.I. and Jack Nicholson's Mercedes 600 Pullman limousine, a favorite of large-living '70s movie and rock stars (The Who's Pete Townshend owned one, too). "A car museum is a world apart from an art museum," says entertainment attorney and car collector Alan Wertheimer. "I have no problem with raising money by selling cars that will probably never be exhibited."