Martin Betz, Laguna Beach Festival of Arts' director of exhibits, collections & education, shares a painting by Clarence Hinkle, called "A Street in Laguna," circa 1920, at an undisclosed collection center in Laguna Beach dubbed FOA North. This secret location currently houses as many as 1,200 art pieces. The Festival is currently working on documenting and cataloging its massive collection. (KEVIN CHANG, Coastline Pilot / April 23, 2012)

Martin Betz tore open the painting's brown paper wrapping.

Kneeling behind the frame, he pulled back the wrapping to reveal a Laguna Beach scene painted in and around 1920 by Clarence Hinkle.

The painting, called "A Street in Laguna," belongs to a permanent collection amassed over 80 years by the Festival of Arts (FOA).

Comprising between 1,150 and 1,200 paintings, photographs, drawings and other pieces, until about a year ago, the collection lay scattered in art storage sites around Orange County and Greater Los Angeles, said Betz, the Festival's director of exhibits, collections & education.

Now, the entire collection lives at what's dubbed FOA North, a secure and secret facility on Laguna's northern edge. Marking its 80th anniversary in 2012, the Festival finally has started the painstaking and daunting task of taking stock of the collection and its related archival materials.

The complex and multitiered project will consist of documenting and cataloging all of the pieces, photographing each of the paintings and storing information about its provenance into a computer database, as well as assessing their physical condition and undertaking an updated but complete appraisal of the collection's value.

An appraisal was last done in 2003, but the collection has since grown in volume and has changed, FOA officials said.

"We're going through the whole collection, from the beginning to end," Betz said while giving a tour of FOA North — which must be accessed using a code to unlock a secured room — in April.

Taking a rough guess, he estimated that some of pieces were worth around $500,000.

"You never really know what's significant and what's not until, a lot of times, many years roll by," Betz said. "So every work in this collection — no matter what it is or who made it — we treat it as if were a gem.

"You just never know when things become significant."

He said Hinkle's "A Street in Laguna" was now worth between $30,000 and $40,000, noting that the original first-sale price tag on the painting's provenance was at least a hundred times smaller — $300.

Throughout the decades, the Festival has built up its collection by purchasing art pieces created at past festivals and pageants, or through donations by collectors.

"A Street in Laguna" came from the private collection of the late Lorna Mills, former president of the Great American Federal Savings Bank in Laguna.

The painting was one of five Hinkles in the Festival's collection that it was lending to the Laguna Art Museum for an upcoming exhibition Hinkle, an early 20th-century painter who was a member of the seminal Laguna Beach Art Assn.

The impetus for the Festival's program came from Tom Lamb, vice president of the Festival's board of directors, through his close association with the late Stillman Sawyer, a fellow photographer who had shown at festivals past.

In addition to giving the Festival $1 million for the endowment of a year-round gallery on the Festival grounds on Laguna Canyon Road, Sawyer donated some 500 of his photographs, along with negatives, proof sheets and old cameras and photographic equipment, Lamb said.

Sawyer threw in an extra $100,000 for the gift's upkeep, as well as $10,000 in seed money to start a photographic research center at FOA in his name.

Next to the Sawyer photographs, the pieces from the Mills collection represent the largest component of FOA's overall collection. As Lamb explained, it only made sense that the rest of the board back his idea that FOA should commit to regrouping and housing all of the pieces in its collection together.

"It was being housed in a variety of places," Lamb said. "It needed to be having more respect and care as a collection itself."