Reeling in the Big One
AONE made a grandiloquent gesture with his arm, saying, “These are all my paintings.” They were hung around the four walls of the giant loft and it looked to me like there might be a thousand of them.
We circumnavigated the loft clockwise, pausing in front of each painting so AONE could explain the inspiration behind it. To give you an idea what this experience was like, I’ll mention just one canvas.
As we approached this particular painting, I actually gasped.
“Ah, yes,” said AONE. “You see, sir, I had gone to my studio in Tuscany” – yes, graffiti artists have studios in Tuscany – “but I couldn’t get anything done! Every time I tried to paint, the phone rang! My lawyer, my accountant, my agent, gallery owners, journalists! But then I had an idea. The next time the phone rang I would grab my Glock and fire a round into the phone. The bullet would travel through the phone line, under the Atlantic Ocean, all the way to New York and slam into the guy’s head!”
Sure enough, the painting depicted a guy standing in an art gallery, holding a telephone about a foot from his ear. A bullet had shot out of the phone, slammed into his head and exited out the other side. (You can see the bullet speeding away.) The guy’s eyes are popping out of their sockets, his mouth gapes open. Blood, skin, bone and brains stream out the side of his head and splash against the wall. All in primary colors of red, green and yellow.
“Powerful,” I said.
Eventually, the Exotic Eastern European Film Director (EEEFD) came over and pulled me aside.
“For God’s sakes, Pittburk, buy someting!” he said. “Don’t you want to get out of here alife?”
I sighed, but for the life of me(!) I couldn’t find anything I could stand to have in my house. But then I spotted it, just around the next corner.
I walked quickly over to the painting and tapped it with my finger. “This one,” I said. “This one speaks to me, AONE.”
“You have excellent taste, sir!” AONE exclaimed. “This is one of my very best works!”
The painting was called “Bernini Fountains, Piazza Navona.”
“You see,” AONE continued, “I was wandering around Rome one day, totally stoned. I stumbled into this big square that had a big fountain in the middle of it. I stared at it for, I don’t know, hours! Then I raced back to Tuscany and painted it from memory.”
The fountain AONE had painted – rather spectacularly – is actually called the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (Fountain of the Four Rivers), designed by the famous Baroque sculptor, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, in 1651.
“It’s terrific, AONE,” I said. “What are you asking for it?”
“F-f-fifty thousand dollars?”
“Is that too much? Thirty.”
“Actually, AONE, I wasn’t thinking of…”
“Ten. My final offer.”
I looked toward the EEEFD, who was shooting me an urgent glance.
“Okay,” I said to AONE. “But I need to go back to Pittsburgh and talk to my accountant, maybe sell some securities.” (I assumed this was how important art collectors talked.)
“Of course,” said AONE, “I understand completely. It’s very nice doing business with you, sir!”
I shook AONE’s hand and got the hell out of there. In the taxi on the way back to the hotel I said to the EEEFD, “Wait a week, then tell AONE I changed my mind.”
A week later my phone rang—it was AONE.
“I know you decided not to buy my painting,” he said. “I understand—it’s very hard to start collecting a new genre.” Genre? “But you see, sir, it is very important for an artist such as myself to get his work into the hands of important collectors such as yourself. Therefore, what would you say to, oh, one thousand dollars?”
I held the phone at arm’s length and stared at it, then said, “Wait a minute, AONE, are you saying you would sell me a fifty thousand dollar painting for one thousand dollars?”
“No, no, of course not,” said AONE. “I am making a gift to you of a fifty thousand dollar painting. You, sir, are making a gift to me of one thousand dollars.”
“Ah, I see. Well, in that case, AONE, we have a deal. I’ll write you a check and…”
“No, no, no!” blurted AONE. “I don’t do checks!”
“You want me to send cash?”
“Sure. You put one thousand dollars in a New Yorker magazine, put the magazine in an envelope marked ‘PERIODICALS,’ then send it via Federal Express to my uncle in the South Bronx.”
I knew perfectly well that sending one thousand dollars cash to some address in the South Bronx was completely insane, but I did it anyway. Then I heard – nothing. Okay, I thought, I got what I deserved for being such a gullible idiot.
But then, months later, a guy called me who owned a gallery in Soho and said, “When are you coming in to pick up your painting?”
“What painting is that?”
“Bernini Fountains, by AONE.”
Needless to say, I was on the next plane to New York – the airfare was more than I’d paid for the painting.
When I arrived at the gallery my painting was spread out on the floor and the gallery owner and I stared down at it.
“Exuberant,” he said, “yet playful.”
“Right. How do I get it to my hotel?”
“What do you mean?”
“It’s pouring down rain outside, and it’ll take me twenty minutes to get a cab.”
“Sir,” said the gallery owner, “this is spray paint. Nothing can hurt it.”
So I rolled the painting up, tossed it over my shoulder and headed out into the downpour. When I arrived at the hotel Bernini Fountains was no worse for the wear.
I shipped the painting to a Pittsburgh gallery owned by a friend of mine, asking him to stretch it on a frame, then went in to pick it up. My friend had hung “Bernini Fountains” on the wall, and we both stared at it.
“Exuberant,” I suggested, “yet playful.”
“Right. Mind if I ask how much you paid for it?”
“I…, well, I promised the artist I wouldn’t say. Any idea what it’s worth?”
My friend shrugged. “Not that much,” he said. “Maybe twenty-five or thirty thousand. But that’s in the US. If you took it to Europe – say, to just the right gallery in Basel – you could probably get fifty thousand for it.”
* * *
A few years later AONE died unexpectedly, and overnight his paintings doubled in value. Just last year an AONE painting that was smaller (and less exuberant-yet-playful) than mine sold at auction in Paris for $150,000. I figure “Bernini Fountains” is worth close to $200,000, making it the single best investment I ever made.
Maybe I’ll sit down and write another screenplay.
Next up: Responsible Investing Without the Hype