Within a day or so of my initial inquiry, Seattle ArtREsource responded that the painting was indeed still for sale – for $48,000(!), which the gallery said it determined with Pace Gallery’s guidance. It also was selling another Close “Cow.” Then, adding insult to injury and completely contradicting John’s theory, the Seattle ArtREsource director added that it would be included in the first Chuck Close online subscription digital catalogue raisonné, which is essentially the official catalogue of an artists’ work (although it’s not actually there).
And one more thing, he said, “If you are in the area it is worth a visit to view these in person as they are rich in detail that exhibits his strength from a young age.”
If he only knew how many times I’d viewed that dang painting.
Then I contacted the Pace Gallery, the New York gallery that represents Close. It didn’t take me long to get through to the gallery’s senior director. I told him my tale of woe. He said that even if the painting was a Chuck Close student work, that Chuck wouldn’t be too interested in it – and that it wouldn’t be worth “too much.”
Actually, this is exactly what he said: “Early paintings aren’t taken really seriously. It’s only taken serious because it has Chuck Close’s name on the back. Chuck would dismiss it – ‘Yeah, whatever, it’s a student work, who cares?’ I wouldn’t kick myself. We sell Chuck Close to Microsoft and Google guys. That’s who we sell to. Would they be interested in a Chuck Close (student work)? No. I don’t think it’s that big a deal personally. I don’t think my collectors would buy that. Only one who might have been interested, is a museum. Auctions say it wouldn’t do very well. A small mistake was made. I doubt anyone’s going to buy it. If someone does buy it, they’ll buy it for 1/2 that and give it to a museum. It if was a portrait you would have known that. Then you would be writing, `Oh my God we hit oil in the backyard with dad drilling.’ I wouldn’t fret it. You want to kick yourself but it has no significance you didn’t luck out. We have early ones in storage. He would never go back to sign a piece that’s already finished. He wouldn’t change history. All artists would do is nod their head and say `as far as I can tell it was done by my hand.'”
The gallery director predicted the painting would sell for half of the $48,000 asking price. To a gallery that sells multi-million-dollar paintings, that really isn’t “too much.”
But it’s a lot to me and my family.
I also called the thrift shop where I donated the painting. I was hoping that perhaps someone there had recognized it and benefitted greatly from it. If so, perhaps I could take a tax deduction for a big donation. I asked the manager if he had any record of selling a Chuck Close painting. He said no. “Unfortunately we probably looked at it and said `it’s an interesting piece,’ and passed it off.”
I asked ArtREsource’s director how he got the painting in the first place. He said a man (who didn’t appear to be a native of the area because he spoke in broken English) approached the gallery, saying he got the painting from someone who picked it up at the Mercer Island thrift shop. He was happy I verified that that’s where I had donated it, giving provenance to the painting. He also lit up when I mentioned it had been hung upside down – something that explained to him why it came in with the hanging wire on the wrong way. He said he went to the consignor’s house and it was devoid of other important artwork. “I think he needs the money, something he hopes to use for retirement.”
Still trying for something, anything really, I then called our family lawyer, who happens to really understand art, having grown up with art collector parents like me. I asked if there was anything I could do – even to get a tax deduction. She suggested I ask who consigned the painting and try to convince him to sell it back to me for a few thousand dollars.
But after hearing the ArtREsource director explain that the consigner really needed the money I didn’t even try. The lawyer tried to make me feel better. “You are downsizing. It happens. I wouldn’t kick yourself over it. Think of the money you saved by not having to insure it.”
My only hope now was that the painting wouldn’t sell – as John predicted.
But my hopes were dashed a month or so later, when I checked the gallery website and saw a “sold” sign on the painting. I e-mailed the ArtREsource director to inquire about the selling price and received a terse e-mail stating: “I’m sorry but the selling price is 100% confidential information that I will not divulge out of respect for both the consignor and buyer.”
End of story? Not quite.
Five months later I found Cow listed for sale by a gallery in Carmel, Calif. When I called, the gallery owner said his gallery sold Close’s Cow. He said the gallery never had possession of it, but sold it “in transition to a buyer he had lined up.” But the story of the painting’s provenance didn’t ring true. The gallery owner said it came from a Close cousin in Seattle, which is untrue since our family had possession of it until 2013. The gallery owner said the painting sold for around $75,000. Although I gasped at that number, I also question it since I don’t believe his version of where the painting came from.
Then, two months later I received a notice that Pacific Galleries in Seattle would auction off two of the Close student paintings that were at ArtResource at the same time the gallery had Cow. Estimated listing price for each was $15,000 to $30,000.
John predicted that neither would fetch minimum bids of “even $1,500.”
I watched the auction online. The one most similar to Cow (Close used the same paint on it) sold for $14,000 – just under the estimated low price.
So that is how this story ends, at least for now. Where does that leave me? What’s the moral? I’m still trying to figure it out. Other than feeling bad that I gave away the painting, it also makes me realize how fleeting the price of art really is. In a nutshell, it’s what someone is willing to pay for it. Nothing more; nothing less. Until I see a receipt or auction record for my Cow, I’ll never really know how much it sold for. Until then, I can only guess that it likely was worth around $14,000 – but may have sold for much more. Or not.
Perhaps the only saving grace is that it’s not mentioned in this story about hot thrift store finds. At least, not yet.