Mystery Art Found at the Local Goodwill
The brief e-mail came to the attention of one of the Weatherspoon’s education curators: someone’s friend had purchased two paintings from the Oak Ridge, NC Goodwill and discovered a Weatherspoon label on the back of one of them. A little research by the lucky purchaser showed that works by one of the artists, Ilya Bolotowsky, command upwards of $25,000. Did the Weatherspoon know anything about how this painting had ended up at Goodwill?
Suffice it to say, the e-mail sent museum staff into its own research mode. Was this really a Bolotowsky, and how did it end up with a Weatherspoon label on it?
My initial thoughts were that the work must have been part of a Weatherspoon fundraising event, from which artworks (not owned by the museum, but created or donated for the event) are purchased by ticket-holders. Or, perhaps it was in an exhibition at the Weatherspoon back in the day. But I definitely did not think it was some mistake, whereby an artwork of ours had escaped the building. Occasionally one hears horror stories of museums accidentally disposing of artworks, but I refused to believe that’s what had happened. I wanted to give our predecessors more credit than that.
Details came to us piecemeal: an image of the front of the canvas, a title (Vertical Diamond), its dimensions, and a label on the back indicating the purchase price was $5500 in 1979. Based on this information, I began to look through our records for events or exhibitions at that time. I discovered that Ilya Bolotowsky (American, b. Russia, 1907-1981) had been in six of the Weatherspoon’s Art on Paper exhibitions, including 1979. All works in Art on Paper are available for purchase, but only works on paper are included in those exhibitions and Vertical Diamond is a painting on canvas.
I looked at the listing of other exhibitions at the Weatherspoon in 1979. Greensboro Collectors was described as a show of “privately owned art works from collectors in and around the city” at the museum from March 25 to April 15, 1979 and included “paintings by Renoir, Corot, Pearlstein, and Bolotowsky.” I thought that had potential, so I went to the storage area where we keep our archived files, to dig around for information on this particular exhibition. Bingo! The painting, Vertical Diamond, was loaned by Burlington Industries to the Weatherspoon for the 1979 Greensboro Collectors show. I found the original loan form in the file, and all of the details matched – title, date of work, dimensions. (This is precisely why we registrars like to keep EVERY sheet of paperwork, ever!)
It was hard to contain my excitement: it seemed that some lucky person had the real deal! But still, how did a painting that was in the collection of Burlington Industries make it to a local thrift shop? Perhaps we’ll never know the painting’s exact itinerary; what is known is that when Burlington Industries filed for bankruptcy and then moved out of its headquarters building on Friendly Avenue in 2004, its collection of artwork was widely disseminated.
So, you’re curious: who made the Goodwill discovery, and what thoughts were running through his or her head at that time?
Well, according to lucky Beth Feeback, she was only at the thrift store to quickly find an extra layer of clothing or a blanket, to help her make it through an unseasonably chilly day of sitting outside, selling her own artwork at the annual spring art show hosted by Leanne Pizio in Oak Ridge. Halfway through the day, Beth jetted over to the Goodwill she had spotted earlier. She found a few items to keep her warm. And then…: “I spied these two HUGE square canvases in frames. I am always on the prowl for something to paint on or paint over. It helps the environment, and better yet, my pocketbook. I am forever buying prints or paintings at thrift stores and either adding to them – by, say, painting a cat head over Pinky’s and Blue Boy’s faces, or by putting a coat of primer on the picture and starting from scratch. I checked the price on these canvases and knew I had to have them at $9.99 each. You couldn’t buy a new canvas a fourth or fifth the size of these for that amount.
The lady at the counter helped me carry them to my beat-up minivan, and we had a hard time getting the larger one in. It was even worse at the end of the art show, packing our gear and pictures in around the two paintings. Before we packed up, I showed the paintings to some of the artists, and Leanne Pizio noticed that one had a label on the back of it indicating it was from the Weatherspoon Art Gallery at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She told me to be sure and do my research before painting over the pieces: ‘The Weatherspoon gets some big-name artists.’”
Beth says it took her a while to get around to researching the artist. When she looked up Ilya Bolotowsky online and saw auction records for his works, she became giddy. “In a perfect world,” she says, “I’d keep it, save it and retire off of it, but I think that will be for someone else of higher means than me.”
Beth has been in touch with Anita Shapolsky Gallery in New York, who represents the deceased artist, and with Sotheby’s auction house. The painting is set to be auctioned at Sotheby’s in September, and in fact, has already made one more leg of its exciting journey, from North Carolina to New York, to await its auction date.
Although Vertical Diamond has left town, a similar painting can be found in the Weatherspoon Art Museum’s collection: Small Diamond.
Or, stop by your local Goodwill. Maybe you’ll get lucky, just like Beth…
Let us know if you do!
—Heather Moore, Registrar, Weatherspoon Art Museum