A stash of art by an obscure painter who lived and worked in a Bellport bungalow could be worth up to $30 million, according to experts who have appraised the work.
The buyers of the home found thousands of paintings, drawings and journals rotting away in the garage -- a discovery that has turned into a windfall for them and a posthumous celebration of Arthur Pinajian, who, according to a cousin, left instructions to dump the art after his death.
If you've never heard of the artist now being hailed by some as the great Armenian-American Abstract Expressionist, you're not alone.
Pinajian painted in virtual anonymity in the modest cottage for a quarter century -- and another 25 years before that -- until his death in 1999 at age 85.
Now, William Hastings Falk, once hired to appraise art from the Andy Warhol estate, says the Pinajian collection is a potential treasure trove.
'Mess' morphs to treasure
Falk calls his appraisal of Pinajian's work "an exhilarating discovery," adding that "flashes of genius illuminate every stage of his 66-year career" as a painter and illustrator.
Already, pieces have been sold at Stephanie's Fine Art near Los Angeles, and galleries in Bellport and upstate Woodstock have fetched $500,000. A 50-painting exhibit showcasing Pinajian's abstract landscapes runs through Sunday at Manhattan's Fuller Building.
When his sister, Armen, died in 2005, relatives put the home up for sale. Thomas Schultz of Bellport says he and author-investor Lawrence Joseph were looking to buy the cheapest house in the village to flip for a profit. The asking price for the house on Country Club Road was $300,000 "as is."
While inspecting the premises, Schultz came across piles of art in the detached garage -- some of it damaged by mildew and vermin.
The family apologized for not cleaning up the "mess" and offered to pay for a Dumpster. But Schultz, who studied art briefly in college, says he was hesitant to discard what appeared to be an artist's life work.
He and Joseph had the work appraised by experts, including Falk, now curator of the estate, and noted art historian William Innes Homer, who died last year. Homer wrote in the recently published book accompanying Pinajian's traveling exhibition, "Pinajian: Master of Abstraction Discovered": "When he hits the mark, especially in his abstractions, he can be ranked among the best artists in his era."
John Perreault, artist and Village Voice art critic, writes in "Pinajian": "The man had talent, and the works show that he was not afraid of the difficult struggle to make serious paintings. . . . One can tell that he followed developments in the art world. But the art world moved on, leaving him behind."
Gary Lind-Sinanian, curator of the Armenian Library and Museum in suburban Boston, says the 2011 exhibit of 70 Pinajian works was "one of the most successful we've ever had in terms of quality. It was so popular we extended it twice after its initial six-month run. "
From cartoons to combat
Pinajian grew up in an Armenian community in Union City, N.J. A sketch artist as a child, he embarked on a career in comic-book illustration for Marvel, among others, creating Madam Fatal, a cross-dressing superhero in the 1930s.
In 1943, World War II called. Pinajian earned a Bronze Star in the Battle of the Bulge. Upon his return, he lost interest in comic books. With money from the GI Bill, he studied at the Art Students League of New York program in Woodstock, where he returned each summer until the early '70s, when he moved to Bellport with his sister. (Neither sibling ever married or had children.) Schultz says he "has reason to believe" that one of Pinajian's sketches from his Woodstock period is of Bob Dylan in a barroom gig.
With his sister working a clerical job in Patchogue, Pinajian threw himself into painting. While he occasionally entered a juried gallery show, he never had a solo exhibition. Now, posthumously, he's had three at museums in Boston, California and Woodstock, as well as several galleries, including Gallery 125 in Bellport, which Schultz opened, and Stephanie's, now representing the Pinajian estate.
Schultz and others purchased rights to Pinajian's works from the family, Schultz says, for about $2,000. (Various family members own Pinajian art given to them by the painter over the decades, according to his cousin, Peter Najarian.)
"Most of them thought of him as Cousin Archie, who painted all the time and never tried to find a job after the war," says Schultz. "He sold a piece here and there. We found a letter in which he wrote that he was using the $78 he got for one painting to buy more canvas."
Schultz bought the house from Joseph after the market crashed shortly after their 2007 purchase. "We never flipped it," he says. Schultz lives in it today with his family."Lost and Found: The Pinajian Discovery," showcasing Arthur Pinajian's abstract landscapes, runs through Sunday, 11 a.m.-5:30 p.m., in the fifth-floor gallery of the Fuller Building, 41 E. 57th St., Manhattan, 11 a.m.-5:30 p.m.
Born in Union, N.J., the son of Armenian Holocaust survivors
Worked as cartoonist in the 1930s for Marvel and other comic book companies
Drafted into Army in 1943, earned a Bronze Star for action during Battle of the Bulge
Pinajian home sold to investors Lawrence Joseph and Thomas Schultz in 2007. Schultz discovers art stashed in garage.