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.”