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How "The Last Washington Painting"

Became "The Lost Washington


Painting"
On the trail of Alan Sonneman's apocalyptic image of nuclear doom
By Maura Judkis July 16, 2010
As portraits of unfathomable destruction go, The Last Washington Painting is a doozy.
In the distance, a mushroom cloud rises over the District. In the foreground, cars rush across the Potomac, inbound and straight for the blast.
The scene, depicted in photorealistic style, brings to life a prospect that seemed all too possible back in the Cold War year of 1981. Ronald
Reagans hawkish administration had just swept into power. The Soviet Union had just swept into Afghanistan. And, no surprise, Alan
Sonnemans surreal, serene doomsday painting was the talk of that years Metarealities show at the Washington Project for the Arts.
These locally made paintings...are creepy, but peculiarly conventional, critic Paul Richard wrote in The Washington Post. They call to mind
this town. Even when they deal with the most peculiar subjects, with monsters and disasters, they dress as blandly as bureaucrats. Their
brushwork remains placid; their surfaces are calm.
Sonneman was 27 at the time. He had moved to the District after graduating from the Art Institute of San Francisco in 1976, living in a Glover
Park group house. The transition between peacenik San Francisco and geopolitics-minded D.C. provided the inspiration for his monumental
work.
It was painted in the days of mutually assured destruction, the daily business of parents of people I knew in D.C., says Sonneman. This is
the business of Washington. My girlfriends father arranged the distribution of nuclear warheads for NATO. It was also a personal rebuke to
East Coast types: People would say, Youre a Californian, arent you scared of earthquakes? And my response was, Youre going to get blown
up first, before I fall into the sea, he says.
The work was included in several local and regional shows in the Armageddon-obsessed early 80s: WPAs Metarealities, Crimes of
Compassion at Norfolk, Va.s Chrysler Museum, the now-defunct Nourse Gallerys Crimes of the Corporate Wars. An image of the painting
was published in nearly every local paper. Two prominent gallery owners, Marc Moyens and Komei Wachi of Duponts Gallery K, soon
purchased it for $5,000.
Sonneman eventually moved to Los Angeles to paint and work in the film industry as an on-set artist. When he left, he didnt keep in touch
with Gallery K. Many of his Washington friends also scattered across the country. Moyens and Wachi sold the painting at some point.
Sonneman never heard about the sale. And thats how The Last Washington Painting became the Lost Washington Painting, not to be seen
again for 30 years.
But now, in a whole new age of terror, the painting is suddenly backslated to star in this falls WPA anniversary show. The story of how it
was found involves several generations of Washington artists. And the story of where it was found is, quite literally, a mess.
Marc Moyens and Komei Wachi loved art, and each other. They owned more art than could fit on the walls of their Alexandria home: works
by Jackson Pollock, Anne Truitt, Joseph Cornell, Gene Davis, and Robert Rauschenberg. There were so many significant pieces that the great
Walter Hopps once curated a show of Moyens collection for the Corcoran Gallery of Art.
Moyens and Wachi started Duponts Gallery K in 1975, specializing in photorealism and surrealism, neither of which were trendy in an era
when the Washington Color School was at its peak. But the gallery was well-liked nonetheless, exhibiting Washington artists such as Sidney
Lawrence, Lisa Brotman, Wayne Edson Bryan, and Y. David Chung. It became an opening-night fixture in a gallery scene that was still based
in Georgetown.
They were true art lovers and connoisseurs, says Brotman. They were wonderful in the sense that they would let you show work that was
difficult, even though it wasnt commercially viable. They had a threshold for unusual work.
But they were less fastidious about keeping records. They were great people to do business with, but they were very old-fashioned, says Jack
Rasmussen, director of American Universitys Katzen Gallery. They closed deals with a handshake.
Which would have been no problem if their business had lasted forever. But by this spring, when Sonneman began trying to track down The
Last Washington Painting for the anniversary show, Gallery K was long gone. It closed abruptly in 2003 when Moyens suffered a fatal heart
attack at the opera. Wachi, who had been sick with pancreatic cancer, died three weeks later. They had been together for 37 years.
After the deaths, the two mens familieslong estranged from the couple, according to friendstook control of the collection, auctioning it off.
The art communitys only real chance to mourn the gallery came in 2007, when Rasmussen organized one last pre-auction exhibit of their
collection. By then, The Last Washington Painting was nowhere to be found.
Sonnemans attempts to track down records of the sale were fruitless. He was told that the gallerys only receipts were among 50 disorganized
boxes of papers, all of them handwritten. If a receipt was in there, it would be a needle-in-a-haystack search. It was also a moot point: The
boxes had been sealed when the pairs estate was settled. Opening them would require a court order.
When Alan Sonneman first contacted me, I thought his rambling e-mailfull of misspellings and written in several different fontswas spam.
He didnt 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 Papers 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 80s. 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. Im 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 works whereabouts.
Of course, many do: Part of the allure of owning a piece of art is the connection to the artistnot just from gazing at the image that he or she
created, but also the personal bond of knowing an artists story.
I think an awful lot of people are in [Sonnemans] 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, its 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, Interpols art crimes division. Theres also the Art Loss Registry, which lists
stolen paintings so that museums can cross-check their acquisitions.
But for art that has been lost, theres nothing to watchdog. Since were not talking about a theft, it could be rather difficult, because were
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 its still possible.
A search of auction records could turn up a lost painting, too. Many of the works in Moyens and Wachis estate were sold through Sothebys
and Christies after their death. Marinello volunteered to list Sonnemans 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 couples estate. Edmisten
declined to speak on the record because she did not have permission to discuss the couples 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 couldnt have strayed far.
As our correspondence continued, Sonneman forwarded me a roundup of everyone hed 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, hes 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 hadnt 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 shed 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 Posts 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 wed 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 hed 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 hadnt 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
I think Ive found the painting, says Brotman. If anyone was going to find it, it was me. I know everyone from that time.
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 wasnt 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 Egerts 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 Im 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: Ive 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.
Hed 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. Thats 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. Its the first one he ever
made, says Egert. The installers were worried about a fire from the transformer, so it hasnt 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 piecea
painting of a man whose legs are sticking out of the sand, titled Fall of the Rebel Angel, after a Pieter Bruegel painting.
Continue Reading: 1 2 3 Next Page Single Page View
1
Manon Cleary
July 15, 2010
2
Gail Jones ( Timoth
Egert's cousin)
July 15, 2010
3
Pat Artimovich
July 15, 2010
4
Supa Dupa Fresh
July 15, 2010
5
Supa Dupa Fresh
July 15, 2010
6
Suzanne Codi
July 15, 2010
But its been a while since hes 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. Ive been so broke in the past decade I cant buy anything, and it kills me.
And heres 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 hes 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 dont care how I
live...Its literally a storage unit, with stuff everywhereboxes, trash, everything you can imagine. Im 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 paintings 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 WPAs anniversary show. But as my deadline came and went, the painting had yet to be moved.
And I still hadnt gotten a peek. Egert said he no longer wanted to pose for a picturewith or without his painting.
All the same, after Egert confirmed that he had the painting, the upcoming shows curator left me the most enthusiastic voicemail Id ever
received:
Fantastic! Amazing! Shocking! Wonderful! Ill 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
Sonnemans own memory was a battle that may have been lost. Though Egert remembers Sonnemans 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? Im sure it didnt
happen.
When you make something you hope its going out to be appreciated and that people can see it. Thats why putting work in public places is
great, he says. You do these paintings with good intentions, and then its 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...Thats the wonderful thing weve accomplished.
OUR READERS SAY
Wonderful. Reads like a detective story. I remember the painting and good for Lisa and her tenacity.
Mr. Egert has pursued a life of collecting and is devoted to his art. If he says a dinner party happpened I am sure it did. How wonderful that you
have allhave finally reconnected and have found the painting which is the important issue. Perhaps I can attend the opening. Gail Jones
Great article! A wonderful cross between good art journalism, human interest piece and a detective story . It reads like a novella. Reminded me,
in quality, of Kirkpatrick's "The Lords of Sipan", although very different topic, of course. Congratulations to the City Paper and Ms. Judkis.
Is Timothy Egert one of the Eaters?
Is Timothy Egert one of the Eaters?
Alan, I'm so glad you and all your good friends persevered...can't wait to see it again.
Of course, OUR Sonnemans are in full view and admired by every new person who sees them !