Figurines from a $1.4 million Santa Claus collection apparently are missing from the University of Central Oklahoma's gallery inventory, admits the head of the UCO galleries and museums department.
The assemblage of about 2,800 Santa Clauses, amassed by longtime Oklahoma City resident Tom Brittain over the course of three decades, was donated to UCO in 1996 shortly after his death. The collection includes centuries-old Santa Claus figures, some worth as much as $6,000, and several autographed figurines donated by the likes of former President Bill Clinton and country star Garth Brooks.
Zina Gelona, director of galleries and museums at UCO, said she didn't think Brittain's Santa Claus collection was being properly handled by university employees when she assumed her current position in 2000. Pieces were spread "all over campus," in places where there was little or no security, Gelona said.
"I even heard that some of the faculty would call over and ask for certain pieces to decorate their offices during the holidays," Gelona said. "That kind of thing just can't happen."
Former Gov. George Nigh, the university's president from 1992 to 1997, said Wednesday it was common practice for pieces of individual collections, like paintings and other works of art, to be used as decorations around campus.
"They do that with art all the time," Nigh said. "And it should be out for people to see."
Nigh, who had no direct control over the Santa Claus collection when it arrived on campus, said he was disappointed to learn some of the collection probably are missing.
"I'm not disappointed that people wanted to use them in their offices or put them out on display," he said. "But I am disappointed that some of them weren't returned, if that's the case. That disappoints me."
Gelona, who said her reputation and track record as a gallery director are unblemished, put a stop to the "lending out" of the Santa Clauses as soon as she realized what was going on. She emphasized that the practice - lending out items that were donated to the university - was not acceptable.
"I was kind of handicapped when I got here," Gelona said. "Before that [the lending out of Santa figurines] might have been a problem, but that's not a problem now."
Exactly how many Santa Clauses are missing - or how much they're worth - is uncertain. The collection, most of which sits boxed up in a storage room on campus, hasn't been accounted for since earlier in the decade, and the original inventory is no longer in existence, Gelona said.
UCO spokesman Charlie Johnson said the Santa Clauses came to the university before he joined in 2000 and that he's not sure about the integrity of the collection.
"I have no clue. We'd have to go back in there and reinventory the whole collection to be sure," Johnson said. "But, if it's a problem, then it's something we need to address."
When Betty McCord heard Tom Brittain's nearly 3,000-piece Santa Claus collection was to be donated to the University of Central Oklahoma in 1996, she remembers not being very pleased about the news.
"I wasn't so gung ho about it. I said: 'Well, that's the last of the Santa Clauses,'" McCord said. "And it was - as far as we were concerned. We pretty much never heard from it [the Santa Clauses] again."
Beginning in 1987, longtime Oklahoma City resident Brittain, along with his partner Luke Crum, began using the mammoth Santa Claus collection to raise funds for the Red Andrews Christmas Dinner, an Oklahoma City tradition dating back to the mid-1940's.
For the next several years, Brittain and Crum would display the collection at their home and would ask those coming by to leave a donation for the Red Andrews Christmas Dinner. McCord, the dinner's longtime organizer and niece of Red Andrews, said between $1,200 and $2,000 was raised each year until Brittain's death in 1995.
Crum bequeathed the collection to UCO in 1996, and the university continued to display the Santa Clauses and collect money for the charity dinner until 2002.
However, the collection efforts, due to a variety of factors, were not successful at UCO. In 2001, only about $50 was collected for the Christmas dinner, said Zina Gelona, UCO director of galleries and museums.
Former Gov. George Nigh was UCO president at the time and now believes the university might have taken on more of a burden than they'd expected.
"We didn't think about the situation before we accepted the collection," Nigh said. "Everybody's gone [from the university] during the holidays. There's no people or students around to leave donations."
Nigh said there was no formal arrangement made with Crum - or anyone else - as far as what to do with the Santa Clauses and how they should be used. He said the university intended to continue the tradition, but no promises were made.
"There was no agreement made with the university," Nigh said. "Only that if the collection was used to raise money ... it would go to the Red Andrews Dinner."
Gelona said the university ceased taking any donations in 2002 because it "wasn't legal."
"You can't charge admission to see a collection if you're a nonprofit organization," Gelona said. "And UCO is nonprofit."
What exactly will be done with Tom Brittain's Santa Claus collection is still undecided. Both Gelona and Nigh said large display cases are being sought for the Santa Clauses, as well as a suitable location to display the extraordinary pieces on a more permanent basis.
"I would love to display all of the Santas," Gelona said. "I hope to do so next year, but I'm working on getting cases and finding a secure location to keep them. It's not easy."
Nigh said he has no official ties to Brittain's Santa Claus collection, but he has continued, on his own time, to try and find a "public" place where the collection could be displayed "up until Christmas Day."
"It should be up where the public can see it," he said.
As for the Red Andrews Christmas Dinner, McCord said she'd love to have the Santa Clauses back in the fundraising picture, although she concedes the dinner will continue either way.
She now thinks the Santa Clauses should be given to the dinner and used in the way Brittain and Crum would have wished.
"They should be in a big case or something to where we could show them at the Christmas Dinner or wherever we wanted to," McCord said. "People would come in to see 'em. And people would leave money in there."