So yesterday I headed back into Manhattan to pick up an Amazon order that I had shipped to a Rite-Aid locker on 24th St. After taking a detour through Union Square to check out the farmer’s market (picking up some homemade craft beers and sampling some cheeses), I walked up to 21st and turned towards 8th Ave. While walking west on the block, I found an old torn seat on the sidewalk, waiting for the garbage truck to haul it away, like a man waiting for the Grim Reaper on his deathbed. Having brought my camera along and figuring I had enough time to kill, I took a few shots from different angles. People passed east and west, one guy who kind of looked like Woody Allen stared at me before walking off. I took more photos, but non of the shots really stood out or did anything for me.
I linger around the area a bit longer, returning calls and texting friends, and decide to take a few final shots before heading out. As I’m kneeling and shooting the chair, the passerby who looked like Woody Allen comes back up, stops, and asks me “Excuse me, if you don’t mind me asking, what is with that chair? Whats so special about it?” I told him that I just stumbled upon it and took some photos but had no luck getting a good shot. “Oh, I thought you were trying to sell that chair and were taking photos to post it on Craigslist or something.”, he said. We began talking about old antiques and vintage items, when he looks around, and in a low voice says “Well, I have a story for you. You don’t mind if I sit on the chair, do you?” And thus began the stranger’s story:
“Ever since I could remember, we had an old painting of my grandmother in the basement in our townhouse. We didn’t think too much of it, didn’t bother to put it up in the living room, even knocked it down once by accident while playing around down there. The years go by, I married and we settled down in the old house. Kept it pretty much the same way as it was back then.
One night, my wife and I were having friends over for dinner. My wife’s circle of friends included artists, as well as museum collectors. We take them down to the basement to show them some old records we had, when my friend’s wife sees the painting of my grandmother, puts on her glasses, and asks “Is that a Picasso?” She calls her husband over from the box of records he was browsing through and he comes up and also states that it looks like a Picasso. They examine the painting and insist that I have it checked out by an expert. I’m standing there thinking “That old thing? A Picasso? Pffffff!”
A few months later, I have another friend over for a few drinks. He sees the painting and not only does he say that it seems to be a Picasso, but he’s also seen the painting, or something like it, in a book. So now I’m curious. What the hell is a Picasso doing in my basement?
Intrigued, I go to the public library a few days later and borrow a book on Picasso’s paintings. The book was massive, I never knew Picasso had so many works. He was most known for his abstracts, but he also did portraits, still life, landscapes you name it. So I’m flipping through this book and towards the end I find a different version of my painting! The same woman, sitting on the same couch, same background, but different pose. The painting I had in the basement showed my grandmother leaning forward, with her chin resting on her arm. The painting in the book showed her laying back on the couch. But there was no mistake it was her. My grandmother was born and raised in Russia, and the painting was described as the “Daughter of the Russian General”.
I’m sitting there thinking to myself “Ok, this is just spooky now.” I then realized that maybe my painting was some sort of version or draft that Picasso painted, and wasn’t happy with, so he made another one, which he sold or displayed. I decided to go to Sotheby’s to see if they could get someone down here to verify it. The next day I go to Sotheby’s and tell the representative “Hey, I think I have a Picasso in my basement.” He took one look at me and thought I was nuts, so he showed little interest, took my number, and bid me farewell. So that’s that, I thought.
Months go by, I don’t hear from Sotheby’s, so I kind of lost my interest in the whole thing. One day I’m cleaning the basement and there’s a large old dusty couch in the corner. I sweep underneath and the broom hits something heavy. I move the couch and find some large square object wrapped in fabric. Curious, I unwrap it and it’s a stack of paintings piled one on top of the other. There was a note on top, some sort of old handwritten receipt that had “Mrs. Astor” as the purchaser. I look through the paintings and I was shocked to find more Picasso’s! There were ten of them wrapped in that old blanket, under there for who knows how long. What are these things doing here? Who’s “Mrs. Astor”? Why is my grandmother in a Picasso painting? Now this is getting scary. Did she know Picasso? Were they stolen? Or counterfeit? Or were they genuine and worth a fortune? I didn’t know what to do! Part of me wanted to contact a museum immediately, but at the same time I didn’t want to reveal some skeleton in the closet. My grandmother was still alive and I didn’t want to get her in trouble for whatever was going on, especially in her delicate state. So I just kept it secret.
Two years later, my grandmother can’t live alone anymore, so my wife and I decide to bring her back into the house and take care of her. My grandmother kept a small garden and would spend her days tending her plants and flowers. One day my wife says to me “I think Grandma is really losing it. You know that big, heavy spoon she has in that bucket of weed killer? You know why it’s so heavy, right? It’s pure silver! That thing is worth a fortune! Why is she using it to kill weeds in her garden?!?” We call Grandma over, and kindly ask her where she got the spoon from, and she leads us to an old box in the basement, and once we open it, we nearly fell backwards. It was full of silver and gold ornaments, dinnerware, candle-holders, you name it! All antique, all worth more than you could imagine! This things belonged in a museum, not my basement! We asked Grandma where she got this stuff from, and she told us “Oh, it was given to me by a friend years ago.”, and didn’t say anymore.”
After he finished his story, I asked him what he planned to do with all that stuff. He said he never had children, he was widowed, and was afraid of what would happen to all that stuff once he passed away. Looking at me, he sighs and says “If all that stuff was stolen or counterfeit, I’ll just be asking for trouble if I contact a museum. If they indeed belonged to my family, I wouldn’t know what to do with the money, and I don’t want to bring any attention or be on the news, or whatnot. I’m happy the way I am, I don’t need to change anything in my life. All that stuff is now part of my world, I guess I grew attached to it.”
We walked up to 8th Ave., before shaking hands, thanking him for such a great story, and headed on my way. I didn’t get a good photo that day, but I did get a great story. This guy did not set off any triggers in my internal bullshit detector, built upon and fine-tuned by students, parents, and principles over the 8 years I spent working as a high and elementary school teacher. The way he told it was so natural, so fluid, never stumbling over details, never contradicting himself. Maybe it was true? Or maybe he was crazy? Or maybe he was simply a skilled liar. Nevertheless, it was a great story and I enjoyed hearing every second of it. I looked at all the buildings around me, wondered what kind of treasures they could be hiding in their dusty basements, shook my head, and went on my way.
Oh, and if you’re wondering about the chair I was taking pictures of, this is it. It’s a lame photo, but whatever.