How "The Last Washington Painting" Became "The Lost Washington Painting" On the trail of Alan Sonneman's apocalyptic image of nuclear doom

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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.

Angry face 

Illustration by Brooke Hatfield

Our Readers Say

Wonderful. Reads like a detective story. I remember the painting and good for Lisa and her tenacity.
Mr. Egert has pursued a life of collecting and is devoted to his art. If he says a dinner party happpened I am sure it did. How wonderful that you have allhave finally reconnected and have found the painting which is the important issue. Perhaps I can attend the opening. Gail Jones
Great article! A wonderful cross between good art journalism, human interest piece and a detective story . It reads like a novella. Reminded me, in quality, of Kirkpatrick's "The Lords of Sipan", although very different topic, of course. Congratulations to the City Paper and Ms. Judkis.
Is Timothy Egert one of the Eaters?
Is Timothy Egert one of the Eaters?
Alan, I'm so glad you and all your good friends persevered...can't wait to see it again.
Of course, OUR Sonnemans are in full view and admired by every new person who sees them !
Alan Sonneman you are the man! I love it. A superstar. Proud to be your old classmate.
Super story Maura! I couldn't wait to get to the end... almost like a great detective short story.
WOW - that is blast from the past, so many names I remember - Alan, Suzanne, Manon, Walter Hopps, Michael Hunter. I worked at WPA at that time (with Al Nodal), mostly in bookworks but we did the open studio project (which grew enormously over a couple of years). And as a print assistant with Jonathan Meader. What an amazing time - so many phenomenal artists from that time! Wonderful to hear these names and see this painting again!
Christies sold two of my paintings of which I never received payment from them or from Gallery K. I emailed Gallery K before the Gallery closed and go no email back. I simply mentioned I had exhibited at the gallery and if they still wanted to represent me. Is it possible to investigate Christies as well as Gallery K?
I will add I contacted Christies a few months after the auction and got no reply from someone who might investigate it, although I was told someone would contact me. How is Christies involved in dealing in lost and or stolen art?
My question in no ways accuses Christies of such actions deliberately or other wise, but does question their actions.
The question would better be rewritten as: Is Christies involved knowingly or other wise dealing in lost or stolen art and if so how?
Of course most likely the legal deals with the boxes can be questioned esp. if I am not alone with this problem, which considering the info here may be the case, That makes Christies more likely uninformed of this problem, considering on paper it may have all appeared above board.

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