|By Jim Rutledge
BELLPORT, N.Y. — Thomas Schultz and his buddy, Larry Joseph, were looking to make some money in a real estate deal when they came across a small run-down, two-bedroom bungalow for about $300,000.
Part of the deal, the two decided, was if Schultz would renovate the place, Joseph would put up the money and then flip it for $400,000.
As they checked out the property, they discovered thousands of damaged canvases in a barely standing one-car garage. As they dug through works, some of the canvases had been chewed away by vermin while others had suffered water stains and mildew. Relatives of the owner, an obscured Armenian-American artist, Arthur Pinajian, who died 16 years earlier, told the buyers they were also welcome to the piles of art if they would cart it away.
While the two “weren’t big art guys,” they went ahead with the deal with the art included. They suspected that the art might have some value. After years of examination by historians and appraisals, Schultz and Joseph were told the piles of works were worth $30 million.
Now, just a few days ago after the first gallery exhibit of Pinajian’s work was offered to the public, comes a payday. Half of the 92 pieces on exhibit in a New York City, Schultz says, sold for $500,000, with one painting alone selling for $90,000. And the offers continue to pour in.
Arthur Pinajian had been a reclusive Armenian-American artist up until he died at the age of 85 in 1999, but now he has been described as one of the country’s most important abstract impressionist of his era.
The dean of American art historians, Dr. William Innes Homer, has concluded that the discovery of the Pinajian collection presents one of the most compelling discoveries in the history of 20th century American art.
“Even though Pinajian was a creative force to be reckoned with, during his lifetime he rarely exhibited or sold his paintings,” Homer said in a report of Rediscovered Masters. “Instead, Pinajian pursued his goals in isolation with the single-mined focus of a Gauguin or Cezanne, refusing to give up in the face of public indifference. In his later years, he could be compared to a lone researcher in a laboratory pursuing knowledge for its own sake. His exhaustive diaries and art notes make it clear that he dedicated all his days to his art.”
“Ultimately,” Homer concluded, “Pinajian’s work reflects the soul of a flawed, yet brilliant, artistic genius. When he hits his mark, especially in his abstractions, he can be ranked among the best artists of his era.”
But, if it weren’t for Schultz, all of Pinajian’s works would have ended up in a dump. “I’m the guy who refused to throw it all out,” Schultz vividly recalled.
In the final days of the sale there was much debate by the sellers. Before he died, Pinajian had instructed his family to throw the art away in the Brookville landfill. Pinajian’s wishes, however, were ignored by his family, and the art just sat in the garage for years until Schultz stepped in to save the works.
“We had no idea of the worth or the artistic merit of any of this stuff. It was basically a big mess,” Schultz told a New York Times reporter.
“We started to realize that we were staring at the life and work and passion of an artist who had been painting everyday for more than 50 years. And we said to each other,” Schultz told AntiqueWeek, “There’s no way we were going to let this collection get thrown away.”
Among the 7,000 works of the Pinajian collection include a wide range of his abstract impressionist paintings, landscapes, sketches of soldiers from World War II, illustrations for 1930s comic books, images from the Woodstock colonies from the 1950s and 1960s, and paintings of his town Bellport painted through the years.
And there were the dated journal entries in which Pinajian explained his techniques and theories of his art, all which contributed to a 2010, 128-page monograph, Pinajian: Master of Abstraction Discovered. The book features essays by noted art experts and historians and many illustrations.
It’s believed that his World War II sketches were a reflection of his army service, and his awarding of the Bronze Star for Valor while fighting the Germans in the Battle of the Bulge.
Also among his paintings were numerous depictions of women reclining in fields and numerous erotic drawing of women on couches. There was an ink sketch of a dancer on a page of classified advertisements from an Aug. 14, 1974 newspaper.
There were cowboy illustrations done for Western comics; a sketch-pad from 1955, pen drawings of figures and self-portraits in pencil on loose-leaf papers. Most of his work was oil paintings on small canvases, three feet by up to four feet. His acrylic paintings were much smaller.
In his early days, at about age 20, Pinajian started his first comic strip having been influenced by actor Paul Muni in the 1932 movie Scarface. While working for a carpet firm, he was hired as a freelance cartoonist by Lud Shabazian, a reporter-illustrator at the New York Daily News, calling himself, a commercial illustrator.
During the 1930s, he was a prolific artist for a number of comic-book illustrations focusing on drawing new comic book characters. He was regarded as among the pioneers of this new medium and achieved considerable success in writing and drawing for such publishers as Quality, Marvel and Centaur, as well as working as an ad agency illustrator.
Schultz said he’s getting requests from galleries around the world wanting to sell Pinajian’s work on commission, as well as many prominent museums requesting his works for exhibition. And starting this month, Pinajians work will be on exhibit in various galleries across the State of New York.
And it’s only fitting, that Schultz and his wife now live in Pinajian’s 625 square foot house.
“It’s like living in Pinajian’s museum,” Schultz said. “His art hangs on the walls, and we sleep in his bedroom that he also used as his studio. There are areas on the bedroom floor were splashes of paint were scattered as Pinajian painted.”
Schultz said he just had to preserve those special floor sections. Everything else was painted white. The house was built in 1945.
Schultz is showing Pinajian’s works in his shop at Gallery 125 in downtown Bellport, Long Island, 60 miles north of New York. To see more of Pinajians work, visit www.rediscoveredmasters.com/Artists/ShowArtist/22.