Academy of Art car sales

The Academy of Art’s auto museum is operating without city permits. Of course it is.

The 1929 Duesenberg Model J convertible sedan is a hell of a way to get from here to there. At the time of its manufacture, its mere bare chassis retailed for $8,500; the finished product could run you a cool $20 grand. 

Twenty grand is a fair chunk of change for a car now. In 1929, it had the buying power of $300,000 today. With a tinge of schadenfreude, we can note that those disgorging this vast sum may have regretted it when, 90 years ago almost to the day, the bottom fell out of the stock market. 

But for those who held onto their Model J — or their heirs — it has turned out to be a worthwhile investment. The Academy of Art recently sold one for $1.16 million — one of seven vehicles it moved in an August 2018 Monterey auction for $2.8 million. 

The university sold 30 more cars in Las Vegas in November, 2018, for $3.7 million; four cars in Indianapolis in May, 2019, for $467,500; and 15 more cars in Monterey in August of this year for $1.69 million. 

All told, in a year’s time, the Academy unloaded 56 cars for just under $9 million. If it accepts the high bids on 30 other cars that haven’t yet sold, it’ll pocket nearly $5 million more. 


The university, per Rob Fisher, the CEO of its auto museum, is thinning its collection and selling off duplicates and whatnot. It’s down from around 250 vehicles to 170, and what’s left is the “best of the best.” You can drop by and see much of it yourself at the corner of Van Ness and Washington — just remember to make an appointment beforehand and show up during the four open hours per week.  

It will come as a surprise to nobody even mildly familiar with the Academy of Art’s San Francisco M.O. that this museum is operating without any of the necessary permitting. “The museum use (limited to the ground floor) is a long standing, but not currently permitted use,” reads a letter from the City Attorney’s office. 

If you or I did this — if we set up a museum in our garage and began charging folks to take a gander at the Subaru — we’d probably get a tap on the shoulder from the city. And then something a bit more punitive. Punitive enough to make us stop. 

And yet, people have been showing up at the Academy of Art’s museum, paying $10 to $15 a pop, and going in for years — since at least 2012

Academy of Art’s cozy relationship with this city’s powers-that-be, even while it  brazenly flouts San Francisco’s rules and laws — with little in the way of consequences — has been the status quo for generations. But, in the not-too-distant future, that may change. 

And, in that not-too-distant future, the Academy of Art could do well to amass a little bit of folding money.

It’ll need it. 

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[dropcap] Y[/dropcap]ou may have noticed fliers plastered on the Academy’s many San Francisco properties announcing a November hearing regarding the status of 34 structures.  (The school’s Institutional Master Plan lists 43 San Francisco properties). 

This is the closing stanza of the 2016 “global settlement” it reached with the city following decades of overt shredding of land-use and rent-control laws. Getting that museum properly permitted is not even one of the 50 most significant portions of this sprawling agreement; if the Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors give their blessing, the Academy will pay some $58 million to the city, and vacate nine of its 43 buildings.   

This is a significant amount of money. You could buy 50 Duesenbergs for this — or, as the city plans to do, build or otherwise obtain a goodly amount of affordable housing. 

But it says a lot about both the Academy and this city that this $58 million penalty would appear to be a reasonable cost of doing business after years of rule-breaking and cat-and-mouse games. And it says an awful lot about the Academy of Art and this city that being sued by City Attorney Dennis Herrera may have truly been a blessing in disguise. 

This way, instead of going through a knock-down drag-out public process over every last window pane in every last Academy holding, all of that is done behind closed doors — and then subject to simple public up or down votes. 

“It’s all expedited,” agrees Academy lawyer David Millstein (The Academy goes through lawyers like Spinal Tap went through drummers; it has churned through more than a dozen of them in the past decade and change. “I am the last attorney,” says a laughing Millstein, who signed on in the fall. We’ll see). 

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Like that Duesenberg, the Academy of Art came into being in ’29. For much of its existence, it was a workaday art institute. Since Elisa Stephens, the granddaughter of its founder, took the reins in 1992, that changed. 

The school began acquiring its nearly four-dozen buildings, rampantly abusing city land-use and rent-control statutes. It fashioned a lucrative business of funneling government money into family pockets via federal loans that left its student body deeply in debt. It admitted 100 percent of applicants and graduated fewer than a third of them.

But you know this. Or at least you’ve had every opportunity to know this: Katia Savchuk brilliantly documented it all in 2015. That story was so good it induced a local editor to publicly lament that they wished their publication wrote it. But, here’s the thing: It did, and all the way back in 2010. Your humble narrator wrote about this in 2008. My talented former colleague Matt Smith nailed it in 2001.  

A dodgy, for-profit college amassing a real-estate empire under the guise of an art institute, cannibalizing affordable housing in the most housing-impacted city in all the realm, rampantly driving students into debt, and blithely violating the Planning Code for 28 unanswered years while being coddled by the city’s societal and political elites ought to be a big story — every day. 

But it wasn’t, because we’ve become inured to this situation. As we’ve become inured to so much in San Francisco that’s just obviously wrong. 

That it took this long to reach some manner of legal denouement with the Academy of Art is a mark of shame for this city. The school’s unobscured and untrammeled lawbreaking and insinuation into the city’s elite power structure is something you’d expect to see in some kleptocratic failed state, not here. 

Well, here it is.  

We now blithely accept ubiquity of the move-fast break-things business model pioneered by Academy of Art: Overrun this city, co-opt its leaders, and then ask for forgiveness rather than permission. 

It is the constant, traffic-like thrum in every San Franciscan’s ear.

Maybe that’ll begin to change next month. But maybe not. 

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Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz? My friends all drive Porsches; I must make amends.

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Managing Editor/Columnist. Joe was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left.

“Your humble narrator” was a writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015, and a senior editor at San Francisco Magazine from 2015 to 2017. You may also have read his work in the Guardian (U.S. and U.K.); San Francisco Public Press; San Francisco Chronicle; San Francisco Examiner; Dallas Morning News; and elsewhere.

He resides in the Excelsior with his wife and three (!) kids, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.

The Northern California branch of the Society of Professional Journalists named Eskenazi the 2019 Journalist of the Year.

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  1. I’m curious to know what has happened with the fraud lawsuit. Have they gone to court or did they settle? It’s been very quiet on that front. Any news on that? Might have they sold the cars to settle that rather than the city’s housing suit?

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  2. Hey Joe,

    Instead of the cutesy little music video attempts at irony, how about posting some of videos of the numerous videos of award winning students and professional project the Academy of Art University supported.

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    1. Robert — 

      Are you a real person, or is this performance art?


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  3. Love the hypocrisy of these ad hominem attacks. Seems to be easy to demonize a multi-million dollar educational institution, while multi-billionaire corporations Google, Yelp, Twitter, Uber, Lift, Salesforce, Starbucks, as well the SF Realtors Association etc. get carte blanche in screwing up San Francisco for everyone not pulling in a six-figure salary.

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  4. It is sad that such works of art are in the hands of this woman and the institution she has greedily absorbed into her orbit.

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    1. M.P.,

      Are you a Member of Parliament?

      Stephens got her money and business same way as Trump and Hellman did.

      She inherited it from her dad.

      “greedily absorbed into her orbit”?

      You’ve added nothing to this discussion but a stupid ad hominem attack.

      You’re just jealous.

      Boudin for DA!

      Preston for D-5!

      Bobby Coleman for SFUSD Board!

      Raju for Public Defender!

      Miyamoto for Sheriff!!

      Go Warriors!


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  5. Mr. Eskenazi has a wonderful way with words and one sentence jumped out.

    “Well here it is.”

    It’s been here for a long, long time and I would say we are pretty close to the definition of a “kleptocratic failed state”.
    Without getting into a laundry list – 12+ bill and growing fast for 850,000 people.
    Additionally we need never ending bond money cause – well – 12+ bill is simply not enough.

    We also own the biggest theft, rip-off perpetrated by an American municipality in the home of the free/brave when city kleptoracts (with help from the federal government) stole the wealth of our “negro” residents by forcibly demolishing the Fillmore and moving the population into concentration camps. Sunnydale – take a walk there on a sunny Saturday afternoon – I dare you.

    Oh – yeah – we’re fixing up those camps but the residents will still be trapped in an excruciating cycle of poverty and non-opportunity from which there are very limited chances of escape. Rap or join the league anyone?

    If you’ve lived here for any length of time, the Academy tends to be regarded as a joke and many assumptions have been made including:
    1) It’s real estate scam
    2) A way for rich foreigners to send their kids to a US “university” (in San Francisco no less) without any academic qualifications
    3) A revenue generating tuition mega machine flipped into the above mentioned real estate scam

    On the flip side – one must admire their moxie for skirting the klepto machine and all the impediments presented therein. Something smaller businesses struggle with – they just don’t have a big enough scam and can’t wrap themselves up in the cloak of “education”.

    On another flip side – curiously there have been production credits attributed to the Academy of Art within an exceedingly brilliant motion picture – Beasts of the Southern Wild. Maybe some of the students actually make it work.

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    1. RE: “Maybe some of the students actually make it work.”

      To put it another way, maybe there is some value to the education they receive from the dedicated staff and faculty at AAU?

      “many assumptions have been made including:”
      There is also that old joke about assumptions. 😉

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    2. Spinosa,

      I used to manage apartment buildings in the Tenderloin
      and our favored tenants often came from the Academy of Art.

      They usually came in and stayed a year or two and then
      moved out and we kicked the rent back to market rate.

      If they stayed?


      The City has been bleeding artists since Willie Brown was
      first elected Mayor in 1996.

      One of my tenants was an amazing sketch artist who was
      given a scholarship (full ride) and did not know who paid
      for it.

      It was Oprah Winfrey.

      Oprah does things like that and would be a great POTUS.

      Another was a fledgling builder from Baltimore who decided
      to get credentialed to add to his resume.

      Amazingly talented builder who was totally independent
      contractor who built fabulous place on Russian Hill.

      Used to go watch his building go up and everyone got union
      wages and full coverage.

      Another was an artist and sculptor and animal rights activist.

      We never lost a dime on an Academy student and many remain
      my friends.

      Stephens’ problem was that when Hellman and his partners
      (using your retirement money) moved into the game?

      The Academy of Art became their competitors.

      Go Niners!


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  6. Campers,

    This is a great institution.

    They treat their buildings like they treat their cars.

    They buy old churches and auto dealership buildings and polish them to a sheen.

    Google St. Brigid’s Catholic Church SF and look what at what Elisa Stephens did with it.

    She’s done the same with dozens of other buildings.

    So, why do so many people hate and smear her and the family’s 90 year old university?

    I’m only guessing but it could have something to do with the late Warren Hellman.

    Hellman and his partners bought the venerable San Francisco Art Institute and changed all the rules.

    He fired left professors and censored any school publication that smiled upon the Palestinian people.

    Hey, it was a wonderful school.

    My 4th wife, a German filmmaker went there.

    Then, he franchised the operation into a statewide enterprise.

    That’s when all of the smear campaigns against the Art Institute began.

    16 days til election.

    I’ve walked over 100 miles with my personally decorated Boudin sign
    which is (by my estimate) seen by 2,000 motorists and pedestrians a

    Get out there and vote, San Franciscans.

    Donate to your favorite candidate.

    Carry a sign.

    Go door to door.

    Make democracy work for you!

    Go Niners!


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    1. I think you have the names of schools confused. No one “bought” San Francisco Art Institute

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      1. rarel,

        Pray tell.

        Then, how did Hellman get control of it and use its
        name to rip off the Stephens business model for
        a cheap franchise which, incidentally, is a failure?

        And, as financiers do, they did it all with money from
        Calpers and other retirement funds.

        Go on, tell me.

        How did Hellman get control of the SF Art Institute?

        Betting, same way he took over Haight Ashbury Free Clinic.

        Put in enough money to put a few Wells Fargo stooges on
        their Board and then …

        took it over.

        Explain to the readers why I’m wrong.

        Go Warriors!


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