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