‘Lost’ Art At Stony Brook Southampton Hospital May Be Auctioned Off

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The art in the store room. COURTESY KAMINSKI AUCTIONS

A “trove” of art in a store room at Stony Brook Southampton Hospital was not so much recently discovered as it was, well, revisited.

A story this past weekend in the New York Post startled some in the local art community, and suggested the stashed collection could be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. That prompted some to fear the hospital was planning on selling off a portion of its broad and valuable collection of original work by celebrated artists like Willem de Kooning, Elaine de Kooning, Robert Gwathmey, Robert Dash and others.

The truth is the hospital administration was aware of the relatively small group of paintings, prints and wood sculptures, and their location; and most pieces were valued in the hundreds, not thousands, of dollars — the exceptions being a signed stone lithograph by Willem de Kooning, a lithograph by Alexander Calder, and a portfolio created to benefit the hospital in 1982.

“You mean the trove of art that’s worth millions,” laughed Barbara Jo Howard, the hospital’s director of marketing, when asked about the artwork, reported by the Post to have recently been uncovered when hospital staff were looking for additional space due to pressure from the COVID-19 pandemic.

It’s not, she said: not worth millions, and not recently discovered.

But the ultimate disposition of all that art, which is now at an auction house in Massachusetts, is still debatable. While the auctioneer believes he has a contract to sell them off, the hospital is saying: not so fast.

Much of the hospital’s collection, including some of the roughly 120 pieces that were the subject of the Post story, is the result of the efforts of the late Elaine Benson, who for many years operated her eponymous gallery on Main Street in Bridgehampton and did most of the hospital’s public relations. She was the link between the hospital and the artists who donated the work and, said her daughter, Kimberly Goff, always felt the hospital and its visitors deserved to have a collection of the region’s great art to enjoy.

“She would work at the hospital from 8 to noon,” said Ms. Goff in an interview this week. “Then she would go to the gallery from noon to six. She never explained how she got from Southampton to Bridgehampton in one minute,” she laughed.

Willem de Kooning in his studio in 1983. courtesy roy nicholson

When Ms. Goff heard that so much art was found in a store room, propped up against boxes, she admits to being upset. She was also concerned that, according to the Post story, the hospital was planning on auctioning off about 120 pieces.

“The deal was, between the hospital and the artists and my mother, they were never supposed to be sold,” said Ms. Goff. “That’s why the artists were willing to make the donations.”

But she may be relieved to learn that most of the art in the store room is not exactly the “A” list items her mother helped the hospital secure. Nor, added Ms. Howard, is the hospital planning on selling or auctioning any of the work.

The possible exception is woodblocks by artist Rose deRose, which the hospital has contemplated auctioning as a shared benefit with the Southampton Historical Museums and Research Center.

“I think the story is the result of over enthusiasm on the part of the auction house,” said Ms. Howard on Tuesday. She added that the hospital presently has no intention to sell the artwork, nor do they have a contract with the auction house, Kaminski Auctions of Massachusetts.

Frank Kaminski differs on that point, and claims he has had a couple of conversations with the hospital’s chief administrative officer, Robert Chaloner, who indicated that the art was to be auctioned. Mr. Chaloner disagrees on that account.

Ms. Howard also downplayed the value of the pieces, which the Post article hinted could be worth up to $1 million. Referencing a list of the 120 pieces, Ms. Howard said only one, a stone lithograph by Willem de Kooning, stood out, with a value of about $2,000 to $3,000. The rest, she said, were valued in the low to mid hundreds of dollars. Mr. Kaminski generally agrees, although he said a Calder lithograph could bring $3,000.

And then there is the portfolio.

The portfolio is a collection of original stone lithographs, the de Koonings included, created in 1982 by many of the East End’s most famous artists working with master printmaker Dan Welden at his Noyac studio.

The portfolio, which was also the brainchild of Ms. Benson, features the work of 10 artists — Dan Flavin, James Brooks, Paul Davis among those listed above — who each worked individually with Mr. Welden.

In each case, the artist would visit Mr. Welden’s studio, create an original work on the lithographer’s stone, then hand pull unique pieces. The exceptions were Mr. and Mrs. de Kooning, in whose case Mr. Welden brought the stone to the artists’ studio in Springs, and Mr. Flavin, who insisted on working in nature.

“Bill’s piece originally had two eyes in it,” said Mr. Welden. “When he saw a proof, he realized he didn’t like it.” And, imitating Mr. de Kooning’s Dutch accent, said, “Can you remove the eyes, Dan.” Which Mr. Welden did.

Mr. Welden also remembered working with Mr. Flavin, who, while best known for his fluorescent light installations, also created several series of sailboat drawings, one of which is included in the portfolio. Mr. Welden remembers Mr. Flavin wheeling the 200-pound stone out into the sand of an East Hampton beach, wearing his favorite New York Giants cap. Jimmy Ernst, said Mr. Welden, used a windshield wiper blade to apply the ink to his piece.
In all, 100 of these folios were created, signed and numbered. Thirty-three went to Mr. Welden, 33 went to the artists, 33 went to the hospital to be sold or auctioned, and one went to Ms. Benson.

“This was really Elaine’s idea,” said Mr. Welden. “She caught me at the hors d’oeuvres table at a party at Carol Hunt’s house and said, ‘Can’t we do something with all these artists and the hospital?’ She said, ‘I can get Elaine and Bill de Kooning,’ and I said, ‘I can get Gwathmey and Brooks,’” recalled Mr. Welden, “and we started from there.”

One complete portfolio, and several individual lithographs from another set that the hospital had apparently framed, are among the pieces currently at the auction house. Ms. Howard said the hospital has three or four other complete sets. The sets sold for $3,500 each when created in 1982, said Mr. Welden.

He acknowledged that values in the art market fluctuate wildly; but said he had sold the de Kooning piece alone on a couple of occasions since for $5,000. He felt the next most valuable piece would be the one created by Mr. Flavin, and added that a complete portfolio, at the height of the market, may have fetched between $20,000 and $30,000.

“This kind of creativity, it was really something of a milestone,” said Mr. Welden. “I would love to do something like it again as another fundraiser.”

But then the hospital has no intention of selling the portfolio or any of the 120 pieces, with the possible exception of the Rose deRose wood carvings.

In many respects, the story starts here.

Elaine de Kooning in her studio in 1982. COURTESY ROY NICHOLSON

The Southampton History Museum, of which Tom Edmonds is the director, has planned a talk based on the life of the artist on July 30. Knowing that the hospital had many of her wood carvings, he approached the hospital to see if they were interested in contributing any of them to an auction, with both the museum and the hospital benefiting.

“We brought them in,” said Ms. Howard, referring to the room where the wood carvings were stored, along with the rest of the 120 pieces. She reiterated that the art was not suddenly discovered by some staffers. “We knew it was all there.”

And by “them” she meant Mr. Edmonds and an appraiser from Kaminski Auctions.
But what occurred after this is the cause of some disagreement, or, as Ms. Howard said, a “misunderstanding.”

The art in the room was supposed to go to the grounds of the museum, said Mr. Chaloner, who said the hospital never approved an auction.

Frank Kaminski disagrees. “There was an agreement made between Bob Chaloner and Tom Edmonds that this was to be auctioned,” countered Mr. Kaminski in an interview Tuesday. “If there hadn’t been an agreement, I wouldn’t have wasted my time.”

According to Mr. Kaminski, Mr. Chaloner told Mr. Edmonds, “If there’s anything there you want to auction, take it.” The idea, said Mr. Kaminski, is that both institutions would benefit from the sale.

“I even offered to not take a commission in order to help out,” said Mr. Kaminski, who instead would be compensated for his work by a buyer’s premium on each sale.

“Our signed agreement is with Tom [Edmonds],” conceded Mr. Kaminski, but added it was clear to him that Mr. Chaloner had agreed to Mr. Edmonds taking the lead. The agreement, he said, specifically lists all of the 120 pieces that have now been moved to Massachusetts.
Mr. Kaminski said his appraiser, Vincent Manzo, spent three days at the hospital cataloging the work and preparing it for the move.

“I wasn’t going to send a truck down to Southampton just to pick up 30 wood carvings worth about $50 each,” said Mr. Kaminski of the deRose carvings. He added that, with all of the recent publicity, he felt he may be able to raise up to $100,000 in an auction.

But, he acknowledged it appears the hospital has had a change of heart. That would certainly appear to be the case, if, in fact, the hospital ever agreed to let Mr. Kaminski sell the artwork in the first place.

“That art was never authorized for auction,” said Mr. Chaloner in an interview Wednesday morning. “And the hospital wants to really assess what it’s worth.”

Mr. Edmonds on Wednesday morning agreed, saying his understanding of his agreement with Mr. Kaminski is that any sale was contingent on formal approval from the hospital. “I think they really jumped the gun on this,” he said. “They were forbidden to issue any release. It was premature.”

Mr. Chaloner said he was surprised to learn recently that the work was, in fact, in Massachusetts, believing instead it had been moved to the grounds of the historical museum, where there had been talk about a small-scale sale of some artwork, including the deRoses.

At present, the hospital is asking for the work to be returned from Kaminski, but the auction house is reluctant, saying they have an agreement to sell the pieces.

“We want to really assess their value,” said Mr. Chaloner. “Then we can decide whether we want to sell anything, or keep it. We want to do it properly.”

Asked on Wednesday morning whether the auction house was prepared to return the art, Mr. Kaminski replied: “I’m not sure as of yet.”

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