Editorial: Whale plate history a sorry saga

August 11, 2011

Two immovable objects — the California Coastal Commission and the marine artist Wyland — have butted heads for three years and the result is a missed opportunity for the public and the state.

Wyland's hugely popular design of a humpback whale tail on a specialty state license plate has been replaced by another humpback whale tail design, and apparently quite a lot of money was spent on it. The commission itself says the Wyland plate has been the best-selling of the state's pricey specialty plates, which cost vehicle owners $50 to purchase and an additional $40 to re-register every year.

Will the new plate measure up? Only time will tell.

State bureaucrats decided to eliminate a proven money-maker; the plate racked up $60.2 million in sales over 16 years. The Wyland design was donated to the state in 1995, costing California nothing. The new plate required the paid services of two artists and untold hours of staff time in reviewing submissions.


The Wyland whale tail saga began to unravel in 2008, when, as the economy soured, the hugely successful artist told the commission he wanted a share of the proceeds of his work to help fund his education foundation. Apparently a demand of 20% of profits from the plate was made, and a counteroffer of $100,000 a year for 10 years was proffered — and no deal was struck.

It was a standoff between Wyland and Commission Executive Director Peter Douglas, who admits that the original donation of the design was sealed with a handshake, so to speak. There was nothing in writing spelling out the rights of either party to the valuable artwork.

In the end, Douglas and the commissioners decided to cast off Wyland and search for a new whale tail plate by holding a statewide contest. Three hundred artists responded, and the process took years to accomplish.

And what is the replacement? The same whale, the humpback, in a slightly different view. A whale that, while having its own marvelous qualities, has little to do with California and is rarely, if ever, seen along our coastline, especially here in the south.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Pacific humpback spends its summers in the Gulf of Alaska and travels to the Hawaiian Islands for breeding in tropical waters. They have no special connection to California as a whole.

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