Monette Kuplec and the Hotel del Coronado bring you, “The Case of the Covered-up Coverup.” In 1973 Keplec, a La Jolla artist, donated her services to a local charity auction. The successful bidder was the Hotel Del and its top executive, M. Larry Lawrence, who had Kuplec design and paint a fourteen-by-seventeen-foot mural for the hotel’s Grande Hall conference center. Kuplec was proud of her sepia artwork, which depicted turn-of-the-century Coronado, and she regularly took friends to view it. But during a 1984 visit, she saw a wall covered in bright red wallpaper and a new mural where hers had been. “I had eight people with me, and it was gone, and it was all very embarrassing,” the artist recalls.
Kuplec says she asked hotel employees what happened to her mural, Tent City, circa 1904. “They told me, ‘It’s been sent to San Francisco,’ ‘It’s in storage,’ ‘It’s here, it’s there, we don’t where it is.’” But Kuplec wasn’t satisfied. “I’m psychic, you know,” she explains, “and I just had a gut feeling.”
So did her lawyer, Peter Karlen, who sued the Hotel Del over the missing mural. After two years of legal footsies with hotel’s attorneys, Karlen finally persuaded the hotel last fall to remove a section of the red wallpaper and let artist Kuplec take a peek. There was Kuplec’s signature and a portion of her mural – smeared with a layer of wallpaper glue. “I was sick, sick to my stomach,” Kuplec says of the unveiling.
Her lawyer, while sympathetic toward his client, was quite pleased to see the evidence. Attorney Karlen has represented numerous artists who have sued the buyers of their artwork for destroying or altering the painting, mural, or sculpture. In an effort to protect artists’ reputations and future sales, the eight-year-old California Art Preservation Act gives artists “moral rights” to their creations even after they’ve sold those works. Faced with this legal obstacle – which the hotel’s attorney derides as a “stupid law” – the hotel’s insurance company last month agreed to settle Kuplec’s case for a cash payment. (Karlen won’t disclose the amount, saying only, “It’s the usual, ten times the purchase price.” But a source close to the case says the mural was valued at $2,400.)
Kuplec says she’s satisfied with the outcome, though she has had visions of her interred mural springing back to life. “I have thoughts of the wallpaper just peeling off,” she says. The hotel’s attorney isn’t at all happy with the settlement, even though the insurance company picked up the tab. He says the hotel’s decorators “never intentionally destroyed” Kuplec’s mural but simply tired of it and decided to commission the new work. He also denies that any hotel employees ever intentionally misled the artist about what happened to her mural.