How research got an early Chuck Close painting from a closet onto an auction block.
In the late 1960s, before he became the renowned Chuck Close, the artist was known simply as Charles Close and taught at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. His career took a curious twist when the university abruptly canceled an exhibition of his work, citing concerns about the presence of nudity in some of his paintings. It was a move that would ultimately lead to a legal battle, turning Close's case into a cornerstone of First Amendment discussions, often dissected in law schools. Guiding him through this artistic and legal turmoil was his attorney, Isidore Silver.
For the exhibition in question, Close created 31 works, several of which featured male and female nudes. Among these pieces was a semi-abstract portrayal of Bob Dylan clad only in a T-shirt. The titles of some paintings were provocative, such as "I'm only 12 and already my mother's lover wants me" and "I am the only virgin in my school." Not surprisingly, this unconventional selection raised eyebrows and drew complaints, even resulting in the theft of one drawing.
The university reacted by removing the paintings from the exhibition, prompting Close to sue on the grounds of free speech. In a case that would go down in history as a significant First Amendment precedent, Close's lawyer argued that "art is as fully protected by the Constitution as political or social speech." While Mr. Silver initially won the case in court, the victory was short-lived as they lost on appeal. Chuck Close, who later dismissed the exhibition as "sort of transitional work," also paid a personal price, losing his job as a result. The fate of the controversial paintings, which had been returned to Close, remained somewhat of a mystery as they vanished from the record.
One of the pieces from the exhibition was a striking 64 x 80-inch canvas titled "Untitled (Danaë)," showcasing an expressionist nude. Apparently, Close had given it to his lawyer, Mr. Silver, and it remained rolled up in a closet for over half a century.
Fast forward to 2022, where Mr. Silver, now in declining health, decided to part with the painting. He gifted it to his dog walker and confidant, Mark Herman. Herman, who has been compared to the iconic character "the Dude" from "The Big Lebowski," had formed a close bond with Mr. Silver over the last six years walking his toy poodle named Philippe. Following Isidore Silver's passing, Herman began envisioning the painting as a potential source of millions.
Mark Herman in his New York Apartment with the Close painting
Mark offered the artwork to Sotheby's, which initially scheduled it for auction in December with an estimated value of $15,000 to $20,000. However, the auction house withdrew the piece from the sale when neither Chuck Close's studio nor his longtime gallery, Pace, could confirm its existence. To add insult to injury, Mark Herman received a bill of $1,742 from Sotheby's for stretching the work.
In recent years, as the prices of artworks have skyrocketed, so have disputes over their authenticity. To avoid legal entanglements, many artists' studios and estates stopped authenticating stray works that have resurfaced in the market. The estates of artists like Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Jackson Pollock, Keith Haring, and Roy Lichtenstein have all ceased their authentication services, and one authenticator, Mark Restellini, has received threats for rejecting a painting.
Authentication becomes even more challenging when dealing with early works, even despite an unbroken chain of custody and rock-solid provenance.
Mark Herman's hopes were dwindling until a savior emerged in the form of Caroline White, an archivist at the University of Massachusetts. She unearthed a student newspaper article from 1967 that documented the banned exhibition and featured a photograph of the elusive painting.
The unearthed article featuring the painting in The Massachusetts Collegian, 1967
With the painting's authenticity now established, offers started pouring in. Kasmin Gallery in Chelsea had a potential buyer willing to pay $18,000, according to Herman. He turned down the offer, and the following week, a new offer nearly doubled the previous one. Unfazed, he refused once again.
Heritage Auctions, having earlier declined to auction the work, had a change of heart. While the painting deviated from Chuck Close's recognized style, Taylor Curry, Heritage's director of modern and contemporary art in New York, saw its value in its historical significance. "There's this amazing First Amendment issue, where this case really set the precedent for future artworks," Mr. Curry noted. "Without the case, who knows if he'd ever have come to New York."
Furthermore, the fact that Mark Herman was not a billionaire and that the proceeds would honor the hard work and companionship he provided to Mr. Silver added an emotional layer to the story that appealed to collectors. After all, everyone loves a captivating narrative that transcends the canvas.
This story highlights the importance of research, which is something appraisers do every day when providing valuations. To me, a great appraiser is also a great researcher.
The Close is currently available for bids on Heritage’s site. The auction is slated for November 14, 2023.