In 1925 painter Joseph Kleitsch set up his easel in Laguna Beach, midway along the crescent of Main Beach. He focused on a graceful stand of eucalyptus trees in the foreground, the yet to be paved highway dividing the beach and the corner of Forest Avenue, dominated by its adobe-colored drugstore building. He subtly suggested people in the townscape and moving upward painted verdant canyon hills and a luminous blue sky. The light was bright, inspiring him toward lively brush strokes and an equally bright palette. He titled it “The Drugstore.”
Today, the painting is making its first public debut ever in an exhibition at the Irvine Museum titled “Masterpieces of California Art.” “Even then, Kleitsch was intent on capturing the charm of Laguna Beach before it would change,” said Jean Stern, executive director of the museum.
The painting will be on display until Jan. 19 and then returned to its owners, Patricia and John Dilks, residents of Honolulu and Carmel.
The Dilks acquired “The Drugstore” after it was featured in a 2014 episode of a favorite television program, PBS’s “Antique Roadshow.”
A 93-year-old woman, who brought the painting in for an appraisal, revealed that her parents had purchased the work for $100 from Kleitsch’s widow in 1939. Born in Hungary in 1882, Kleitsch had died of a heart attack in 1931. “I grew up in Laguna Beach, and that is what the town looked like then,” the woman, who has not been further identified to protect her security, said during the show.
On the show, Debra J. Force, a specialist in 18th to 20th century American art, appraised the work at $500,000. In a recent interview, Force said it sold for an even higher sum, which she and the Dilks declined to disclose. Though the market for similar paintings has fallen off in the last 10 years, Kleitsch works have retained their value, Force said.
And then some. Another Kleitsch work that disappeared from public view figures in an episode of Laguna’s more recent history. The Trevino family, whose home was destroyed in the June 1, 2005, Bluebird Canyon landslide, salvaged a painting among other belongings. The painting of Mission San Juan Capistrano survived because it had been removed from the living room to allow a wall to serve as a projection screen. Left for safekeeping with neighbors, artist Pat Hagen discovered the Kleitsch signature and the work’s title, “Evening Shadows.” At Hagen’s behest, Laguna Beach art dealer Ray Redfern took a look and also appraised it at $500,000. He brokered a sale for the Trevinos free of charge, and the family later used the proceeds to rebuild their home. Because of its value, the painting had also spent a pre-sale sojourn at the Laguna Art Museum, which owns four Kleitsch paintings.
Kleitsch began his art career in his teens as a sign painter and shortly after revealed extraordinary talent as a portrait painter, according to a biographical portrait by Stern. The artist’s subjects include Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria and Mexican President Francisco Madero and his wife.
He emigrated to the U.S. around 1901, settled first in Ohio and later several other places before meeting Elsie and Edgar Payne in Chicago, Ill. The couple convinced him to move to Southern California. Finally settled in Laguna Beach, he continued to paint portraits to make a living as well as still-lifes but became increasingly enchanted by his surroundings.
Technically, many compare him to French Impressionists, and indeed he had visited Giverny, Claude Monet’s home village in 1925.
Something of a visionary, he concentrated on the town’s quaint streets and houses since he foresaw that Laguna’s rustic charm would eventually succumb to real estate development.
“The Drugstore” fits into that series and, even though it had spent decades in private hands, Force described it as in prime condition. “It was a spectacular painting, even more distinguished for its provenance. It’s rare on ‘The Roadshow’ to find something with such an ironclad history. They still had the original bill of sale,” she recalled.
Acquisition proved somewhat challenging. The owner “did not at first want to part with the painting, but I stayed in touch with her,” said John Dilks. “She got a lot of calls from other people and that upped the price,” he added.
A real estate broker, Dilks grew up in Long Beach but forged a strong bond to Laguna Beach surfing at Brooks Street. With a collection of 40 works of California art, Dilks said he and his wife feel fortunate to have acquired the Kleitsch work. “I really felt connected to that painting. And when we came to Laguna Beach, I stood where Kleitsch might have painted it.”