As portraits of unfathomable destruction go, The Last Washington Painting is a doozy.
In the distance, a mushroom cloud rises over the District. In the foreground, cars rush across the Potomac, inbound and straight for the blast.
The scene, depicted in photorealistic style, brings to life a prospect that seemed all too possible back in the Cold War year of 1981. Ronald Reagan’s hawkish administration had just swept into power. The Soviet Union had just swept into Afghanistan. And, no surprise, Alan Sonneman’s surreal, serene doomsday painting was the talk of that year’s “Metarealities” show at the Washington Project for the Arts.
“These locally made paintings...are creepy, but peculiarly conventional,” critic Paul Richard wrote in The Washington Post. “They call to mind this town. Even when they deal with the most peculiar subjects, with monsters and disasters, they dress as blandly as bureaucrats. Their brushwork remains placid; their surfaces are calm.”
Sonneman was 27 at the time. He had moved to the District after graduating from the Art Institute of San Francisco in 1976, living in a Glover Park group house. The transition between peacenik San Francisco and geopolitics-minded D.C. provided the inspiration for his monumental work.
“It was painted in the days of mutually assured destruction, the daily business of parents of people I knew in D.C.,” says Sonneman. “This is the business of Washington. My girlfriend’s father arranged the distribution of nuclear warheads for NATO.” It was also a personal rebuke to East Coast types: “People would say, ‘You’re a Californian, aren’t you scared of earthquakes?’ And my response was, ‘You’re going to get blown up first, before I fall into the sea,’” he says.
The work was included in several local and regional shows in the Armageddon-obsessed early ’80s: WPA’s “Metarealities,” “Crimes of Compassion” at Norfolk, Va.’s Chrysler Museum, the now-defunct Nourse Gallery’s “Crimes of the Corporate Wars.” An image of the painting was published in nearly every local paper. Two prominent gallery owners, Marc Moyens and Komei Wachi of Dupont’s Gallery K, soon purchased it for $5,000.
Sonneman eventually moved to Los Angeles to paint and work in the film industry as an on-set artist. When he left, he didn’t keep in touch with Gallery K. Many of his Washington friends also scattered across the country. Moyens and Wachi sold the painting at some point. Sonneman never heard about the sale. And that’s how The Last Washington Painting became the Lost Washington Painting, not to be seen again for 30 years.
But now, in a whole new age of terror, the painting is suddenly back—slated to star in this fall’s WPA anniversary show. The story of how it was found involves several generations of Washington artists. And the story of where it was found is, quite literally, a mess.
Marc Moyens and Komei Wachi loved art, and each other. They owned more art than could fit on the walls of their Alexandria home: works by Jackson Pollock, Anne Truitt, Joseph Cornell, Gene Davis, and Robert Rauschenberg. There were so many significant pieces that the great Walter Hopps once curated a show of Moyens’ collection for the Corcoran Gallery of Art.
Moyens and Wachi started Dupont’s Gallery K in 1975, specializing in photorealism and surrealism, neither of which were trendy in an era when the Washington Color School was at its peak. But the gallery was well-liked nonetheless, exhibiting Washington artists such as Sidney Lawrence, Lisa Brotman, Wayne Edson Bryan, and Y. David Chung. It became an opening-night fixture in a gallery scene that was still based in Georgetown.
“They were true art lovers and connoisseurs,” says Brotman. “They were wonderful in the sense that they would let you show work that was difficult, even though it wasn’t commercially viable. They had a threshold for unusual work.”
But they were less fastidious about keeping records. “They were great people to do business with, but they were very old-fashioned,” says Jack Rasmussen, director of American University’s Katzen Gallery. “They closed deals with a handshake.”
Which would have been no problem if their business had lasted forever. But by this spring, when Sonneman began trying to track down The Last Washington Painting for the anniversary show, Gallery K was long gone. It closed abruptly in 2003 when Moyens suffered a fatal heart attack at the opera. Wachi, who had been sick with pancreatic cancer, died three weeks later. They had been together for 37 years.
After the deaths, the two mens’ families—long estranged from the couple, according to friends—took control of the collection, auctioning it off. The art community’s only real chance to mourn the gallery came in 2007, when Rasmussen organized one last pre-auction exhibit of their collection. By then, The Last Washington Painting was nowhere to be found.
Sonneman’s attempts to track down records of the sale were fruitless. He was told that the gallery’s only receipts were among 50 disorganized boxes of papers, all of them handwritten. If a receipt was in there, it would be a needle-in-a-haystack search. It was also a moot point: The boxes had been sealed when the pair’s estate was settled. Opening them would require a court order.
When Alan Sonneman first contacted me, I thought his rambling e-mail—full of misspellings and written in several different fonts—was spam.
He didn’t even get my name right. “Ms. Holtzman, Phillippe [sic] Hughes suggested I contact you in regard to my search for a painting I did in 1980 which I titled ‘The Last Washington Painting,’” he began. I very nearly deleted it, thinking it was intended for Ms. Holtzman, whoever that was, and not for me.
But seeing the name of J.W. Mahoney a few lines in, I read on. Mahoney was curating an anniversary show for the Washington Project for the Arts, scheduled for November. So after getting the basic details of the missing painting from Sonneman, I posted a brief item on Washington City Paper’s Arts Desk blog, hoping one of our readers might know of its whereabouts.
The post attracted one comment, from a reader named Jack Burden: “It is a captivating image and familiar to me. I saw it (in some form or reproduction?) in a bar/restaurant in Fairfax in the early to mid 80’s. At that time, I remember being struck by the fact that the vehicles are inbound, moving toward the cloud.”
I forwarded the comment to Sonneman. “Could be they saw the poster,” he replied.
A week later, he was still on the hunt. “I’m going to e-mail some dealers,” he wrote. “Do you have any suggestions?”
Losing track of a painting is not that unusual a scenario for an artist. A buyer has no obligation to inform anyone of the work’s whereabouts. Of course, many do: Part of the allure of owning a piece of art is the connection to the artist—not just from gazing at the image that he or she created, but also the personal bond of knowing an artist’s story.
“I think an awful lot of people are in [Sonneman’s] situation,” says Brotman. “[Gallery K] bought a lot of their artists’ work. Between selling it along the way, and selling an enormous collection after they died, it’s hard to tell where things end up. Two of my huge, important paintings were sold, but the collector got in touch with me. I was very lucky.”
It might be easier to find a stolen painting than one that has merely been lost. With a stolen painting, there are clues: security camera footage, fingerprints, witnesses. There is an entire police force on the case, Interpol’s art crimes division. There’s also the Art Loss Registry, which lists stolen paintings so that museums can cross-check their acquisitions.
But for art that has been lost, there’s nothing to watchdog. “Since we’re not talking about a theft, it could be rather difficult, because we’re waiting for a particular collector to grow tired of the piece,” says Chris Marinello, executive director of the Art Loss Registry. “Or he donates his collection to a museum and the museum will check with us, or he dies and the estate lawyer will check with us. I would say it would be more difficult to find than a theft. But it’s still possible.”
A search of auction records could turn up a lost painting, too. Many of the works in Moyens’ and Wachi’s estate were sold through Sotheby’s and Christie’s after their death. Marinello volunteered to list Sonneman’s work pro-bono. But a preliminary search of public records had turned up nothing.
Another potential source for news on the painting was Jane Moretz Edmisten, the lawyer who had managed the couple’s estate. Edmisten declined to speak on the record because she did not have permission to discuss the couple’s affairs. But she made it clear that there would be legal hurdles to finding information about the estate. Several other artists had spoken with her about the boxes of assorted papers that may, or may not, have contained a receipt of the sale. The boxes had always remained sealed.
Which left one woefully inefficient way of finding the painting: word of mouth.
There were several scenarios: The Last Washington Painting might have been purchased by someone 30 years ago who is now rather old—someone no longer an active part of the art social scene here. It could have been bought by someone who then resold it. Maybe the purchaser died and left the painting to a family member who promptly stashed the violent image in an attic.
But Sonneman was convinced that a painting so uniquely Washingtonian couldn’t have strayed far.
As our correspondence continued, Sonneman forwarded me a roundup of everyone he’d spoken to. The list meandered through the entire Washington art scene, past and present. There was Annie Gawlak and George Hemphill of G Fine Art and Hemphill galleries, respectively. Art bloggers Philippa Hughes and Anne Marchand. Rasmussen of the Katzen Gallery. Edmisten, the estate lawyer. And there was also Bill Hill.
Hill is an artist and an art mover, responsible for transporting delicate items to museums. Throughout his 26 years of delivering art up and down the East Coast, he’s been in all of the collectors’ homes. “I thought it would be easy,” says Hill. “I thought an artist named Rob McCurdy may have taken it to New York. But an artist got in touch with him, and he said he hadn’t seen it since about 1983.”
Hill, however, directed me to painter Lisa Brotman. “Lisa was very social,” Hill says. “She had a better grip than I did on the individual collectors that bought from Gallery K.”
And Brotman was eager to help. “I was in the ‘Metarealties’ show too!” she exclaims. “I even saved the catalog.” Not that she’d needed it: She still remembered The Last Washington Painting. “That piece was very Gallery K,” she says. “It was a spectacular painting. They liked challenging subject matter.”
And so the phone calls began. Brotman called artist Bill Newman. Sonneman called Benjamin Forgey, a former art critic of The Washington Star who retired as The Washington Post’s architecture critic in 2006. He also e-mailed artist Michal Hunter and tried to track down former art dealer Chris Middendorf. Rasmussen remembered that a woman named Rosie had been connected to the estate, but he had no other details about her. Back and forth we went, each person referring us to someone we’d already contacted.
Each time we circled back, we tried to find new contacts within every category Moyens and Wachi associated with: artists, collectors, gallery owners, beneficiaries of their wills. Then Brotman remembered the names of a pair of assistants who used to work at the gallery.
Assistant No. 1 proved hard to find. One of the addresses for someone with his name turned out to be the address of the Chinatown bus depot. Following up on a tip that he’d relocated to the Twin Cities, I pored through Minnesota phone listings and had a number of nice conversations with Minnesotans who all assured me that, no, they hadn’t worked at Gallery K in the early ‘80s.
As for assistant No. 2, 16 people in the D.C. phone book share his name. But before I began another string of vaguely embarrassing calls, Brotman called me with good news.
Illustration by Brooke Hatfield
“I think I’ve found the painting,” says Brotman. “If anyone was going to find it, it was me. I know everyone from that time.”
Brotman had found an alternate number for Steve Moore, the second assistant. “Steve said a collector named Tim Egert bought it in the early ’80s. Not only did Steve know where it is, he used to live with Alan. The thing that most puzzled Steve was that he says Alan knew Tim bought it.”
Moore, though, wanted no part of a news story. He declined to comment for the record.
At any rate, we still had to find Egert, whose number was unlisted. It wasn’t hard to find out a few basic facts. The child of a diplomat who had been posted in Afghanistan and Italy, Egert also worked for the State Department, serving in the Office of Directives Management. And he was a prominent collector, lending art by Malcolm Morley, Gerald Hawkes, Thomas Nozkowski, and others to museums around the country and the world.
Bill Hill had even moved items from Egert’s collection before. But he had never seen The Last Washington Painting there.
And all the numbers Hill had for Egert were disconnected. Which brought the search back to the State Department, where a friend was happy to provide the correct number.
“May I please speak to Timothy Egert?”
“Who are you?”
“My name is Maura Judkis and I’m with Washington City Paper....Are you the owner of The Last Washington Painting by the artist Alan Sonneman?”
A long pause.
“Yes. That painting is in my house.”
Then I said something creepy: “I’ve been looking for you for two months.”
Egert is surprised that anyone would consider the painting lost. “I had [Sonneman] over for dinner shortly after I bought it,” he says.
He’d first seen The Last Washington Painting in Gallery K, and immediately wanted it. He shelled out $5,000 and invited the artist and the gallery owners to a celebratory dinner. “I was so pleased with the painting,” he says. “That’s how I got to know Gallery K.” He later became a director of the gallery to assist the couple, because a business needed to have three partners to incorporate in D.C. He was a nonfiduciary partner until the day the gallery closed, and never took a paycheck from Moyens or Wachi.
Egert added the painting to an already-extensive collection. His treasures include an early Gene Davis neon piece. “It’s the first one he ever made,” says Egert. “The installers were worried about a fire from the transformer, so it hasn’t been turned on. I always thought the perfect place for it would be on the ceiling.” Another prized possession is a Malcolm Morley biplane. And he owns a second Sonneman piece—a painting of a man whose legs are sticking out of the sand, titled “Fall of the Rebel Angel,” after a Pieter Bruegel painting.
But it’s been a while since he’s done much acquiring. “I wish I was more into quality than quantity in the beginning,” he says. “I wish I had bought more New York artists. I’ve been so broke in the past decade I can’t buy anything, and it kills me.”
And here’s where the path to The Last Washington Painting, freshly tracked down, gets messy again. In his collecting heyday, Egert says, he was a wealthier man. But he says he’s fallen upon tough times, with the contents of his multiple houses having been consolidated into one. Along the way, he never threw anything away. “My house is a waystation for the contents of about three houses” says Egert. “I don’t care how I live...It’s literally a storage unit, with stuff everywhere—boxes, trash, everything you can imagine. I’m like one of those, what do you call them?”
You call them hoarders. Which is what Egert, by his own description, is. He estimates that he has 10,000 books in stacks of boxes that tower throughout the house. His prized collection of art does not hang on the walls, but rather, leans against them, behind the boxes. He did not want a photographer or reporter to visit his house not just because of its condition, but because he feared there was nowhere to stand.
The painting that Sonneman, Hill, Brotman, the WPA, and I had been searching for had been buried all these years in a pile of stuff.
When we spoke, Egert said he was not averse to the painting being viewed elsewhere. He volunteered his art storage unit on River Road. When I informed WPA director Lisa Gold of the painting’s location, she and Egert arranged for Bill Hill to transport it to storage, where it will stay until the Nov. 9 opening of “Catalyst,” the WPA’s anniversary show. But as my deadline came and went, the painting had yet to be moved. And I still hadn’t gotten a peek. Egert said he no longer wanted to pose for a picture—with or without his painting.
All the same, after Egert confirmed that he had the painting, the upcoming show’s curator left me the most enthusiastic voicemail I’d ever received:
“Fantastic! Amazing! Shocking! Wonderful! I’ll try you on your cell! Wow!”
Sonneman, though, was more subdued. In each e-mail he had sent over the course of the two-month search, his signature included this quote from the Czech writer Milan Kundera: “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” But the struggle of Sonneman’s own memory was a battle that may have been lost. Though Egert remembers Sonneman’s knowledge of the sale, and the interactions regarding it, Sonneman has no recollection of those moments.
“I remember Komei mentioning his name,” he said of Egert, “But not more than once in passing.” As for the dinner party? “I’m sure it didn’t happen.
“When you make something you hope it’s going out to be appreciated and that people can see it. That’s why putting work in public places is great,” he says. “You do these paintings with good intentions, and then it’s out of your control. It functions as an object or a commodity, and anything can happen: It can end up in a closet, a hotel lobby, or some house in the woods of Vermont, and reappear years later. And then it will be seen again...That’s the wonderful thing we’ve accomplished.”