So Close (or, how I literally had a Cow)

Cow painting upside downFor me, this story doesn’t have a good ending. But it’s a really good story nonetheless. Please bear with me as I unfold this sad tale.

My father had a house full of stuff – lots of artwork, including valuable Northwest paintings, mixed with junk. When it was time to sell the house my brother and I spent two years going through the stuff to make sure we culled out the valuable pieces from the junk.

We thought we knew which paintings were valuable. My parents had done a good job teaching us about the artwork as we grew up. In fact, we spent many weekends going to art galleries. I could name the artists of all the major paintings and I knew the history behind many of the paintings – where they came from, when my parents purchased them, and the back stories that made the pieces interesting. To make sure we were being fair, my brother and I brought a well-known local art dealer to the house to give us values on all of the artwork so we could divide it among ourselves equally. He spent a couple of hours there looking at the works that we showed him and talking to my father, then age 92. We showed him all the artwork that we believed had value.

Then my brother and I went about our work dividing up the collection. He took one, I took one. We did this until we had divvied up all the paintings that we wanted. And we carefully noted the value so that we’d come out even in the end.

The paintings that neither of us wanted – about a third of the collection – were consigned to a local gallery that specialized in Northwest art. We trusted the dealer completely.

But there was plenty more to dispose of in the house where my father lived for 49 years. So we called in a well-known appraiser who also did estate sales. He and his team spent nearly a week in the house, going over everything and carefully pricing it. He advertised the sale and it held such promise that we had people camping in the driveway the night before so they could be the first in the house. The first people in line were brothers who owned an art auction house. They picked out a few key pieces that they knew they could auction.

Over the next three days, hundreds of people – collectors and looky-loos – traipsed through the house looking for treasures and bargains. We sold about 75 percent of what was there, including much of the artwork at what I considered to be good prices. We took what was left, boxed up some to send to an auction house (where you literally get pennies on the dollar) and eventually gave the rest away. Most went to the local thrift shop.

We did hold back a few things that were used by the stager who staged the house for sale. The house was a Mid-Century Modern, so he put in period furniture and artwork. He used two large paintings from my father’s collection – neither drew any interest from any of the people who had come through the house – to fill up significant wall space without making the house look cluttered.

One of those paintings had hung upside down over my father’s bed for about 40 years. It was a large unsigned bold abstract called “Cow,” which my father dismissed as a “student work,” something he had purchased in 1962 from a University of Washington art student (it’s pictured in the left hand corner of this post). He didn’t know who the student was. He liked the painting, but didn’t love it enough to hang it right-side up. He eventually replaced it with another student work that he purchased in Hawaii about five years ago. Cow was relegated to the basement painting stacks. At one point my sister-in-law considered taking it home, but turned it down when she learned it was a cow. I never cared for it – either the style or gaudy green and red color pallet.

After the house sold and the stager removed his furniture I took Cow to the local thrift shop. I hesitated for just a moment when I saw the index card taped to the back of the canvas. It said, “Cow” “1962” “Charles Close.”

I know of the famous painter Chuck Close and love his work (now being shown in an amazing exhibit at Everett’s Schack Art Center). But this painting looked nothing like the elaborate portraits Close is known for. His portraits are so accurate they look like photos. Others are comprised of hundreds of painted “mosaics” or fingerprints that turn into amazingly accurate portraits as one backs away from his paintings. Close, who was born in Monroe, Wash., and is now based in New York, is perhaps the most famous student to have graduated from the University of Washington. Not only is he an amazing painter, but he’s a quadriplegic, so he paints with a device attached to his paralyzed hand. His current works sell for millions of dollars.Close-Self-Portrait-1997

As I took the last of my father’s belongings to the thrift shop I felt a sense of relief. Two years of sorting through stuff had ended with the sale of his home to an appreciative family, one that would value the architecture and keep it from being torn down. What a happy end to this story. Right?

Unfortunately, not.

The house closed soon after it went on the market. Six months later I was sitting on my couch thumbing through a copy of one of the local high-gloss magazines when I saw a posting for a show at Seattle ArtREsource gallery of “reasonably priced” work featuring artists who attended or taught at the University of Washington. It included many of my favorites, including Jacob Lawrence and Chuck Close. I called up the gallery’s website on my smart phone and started scrolling through the artists. I clicked on Chuck Close and …. nearly had a heart attack! There, staring me in the face was Cow! It was right side up in all its burnt red and green glory.

To Be Continued…..

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