By Leah Gilchrist
A stroke of luck and a long investigation has left Josh Levine of J. Levine Auction & Appraisal with a story to share for a lifetime.
As he handles the painting he’s now had for over a year and carries it from room to room in his auction house, Levine is careful. The piece isn’t large, but it turns heads. Levine says he has to be careful when moving the painting, not only because of its value, but also for who might see that it is being stored at the Airpark-area appraisal company.
After placing the painting against a wall and shutting the door to a private room, he relaxes and says he can never be too sure who has seen him moving the painting he’s kept in a vault for safekeeping and which has consumed him for the last 18 months.
Levine is finally able to say, after a long verification process, he believes the painting is an authentic Jackson Pollock work. His company has auctioned all sorts of items, from jewelry to cars, throughout its time in Scottsdale. Something he never thought would land in his hands: an unsigned Jackson Pollock painting from New York.
After originally going to a Sun City home for an estate appraisal to see if there was any value to a Kobe Bryant Los Angeles Lakers poster, the company left with a stack of art from the Big Apple. All of the paintings in the stack were signed, except for one.
“I’m like, ‘That really looks like it could be a Jackson Pollock,’” Levine says.
The collection, found in the garage of a Sun City home in December 2015, included an original Kenneth Noland, an original Cora Kelley Ward, an original Jules Olitski and an original Louis Siegriest. The signed pieces in the collection were auctioned in early 2016. The unsigned Pollock, which has been unofficially titled “Jenifer’s Jackson Pollock,” remained in Levine’s hands while he worked to verify it.
“It was the only piece that I didn’t know because it wasn’t signed and it was just, all these pieces – if you look at the artists, they were all in Jackson Pollock’s circle.”
It was an unusual piece to have in a home in Arizona. Levine often sees art with Southwestern characteristics come from the estates he appraises, and to see art from New York in the home was a surprise. After a conversation with the man who lived in the Sun City house, Levine learned the art collection was the man’s late half-sister’s and it had been shipped to his home in New York following her death in 1993.
“When I first saw it, it was literally this: ‘Hey, that looks like a Jackson Pollock. Is it signed? No? Okay,’” Levine says.
Levine has handled art and other items of significant value in the auction and appraisal business, but he never thought he would handle a piece that would need in-depth research to verify its authenticity and value. “It’s so weird. Right now it feels completely surreal. It’s so nerve-wracking,” he says.
The first two months he had the painting, Levine looked for any information he could find on where the painting came from and why it was in a collection of art all dated around the 1940s and 1950s New York art scene.
Many of the pieces in the collection were personally signed to a woman named Jenifer. “I hired a private investigation firm here in Phoenix that did everything they could do online or by request. Then it got to the point where they were like, ‘We need somebody with boots on the ground in New York,” Levine says.
Levine then hired a private investigator in New York to go to the courthouses and look for a birth certificate, death certificate and any marriage licenses that may have ties to a woman named Jenifer Gordon. Gordon had been married several times, causing her name to change throughout Levine’s research.
Gordon was a socialite in the New York City art scene in the 1940s and 1950s. Levine says one of the first items he looked through while searching for verification was Gordon’s own Rolodex. He noticed names of artists with personal phone numbers and the addresses to their summer homes. “She has all these artists in her Rolodex. This isn’t ‘You collect somebody’s art.’ This is ‘You know these people,’” Levine says.
As he started to connect pieces, he realized Gordon was close friends with Peggy Guggenheim. Guggenheim and Gordon exchanged letters with each other and Levine found photographs of the two together.
The supposed Pollock piece is believed to be one of the lost paintings in his catalogue raisonné. It matches the material description and the size description, and the painting was last seen at Guggenheim’s Art of the Century gallery. The painting also has a wood frame, which Levine says is characteristic of a Pollock painting.
“Everyone says it’s a Jackson Pollock,” Levine says. “I know it’s a Jackson Pollock. We know this has been around since then, and who owned it, and she was friends with them, and there’s photographs of them.”
The painting has been damaged from water and smoke, which worked in Levine’s favor as further proof of the painting’s authenticity. It’s difficult to replicate years of damage from smoking around the painting and the water damage from sitting in a garage. The painting needs restorations that could end up costing around $50,000. Levine has left the painting as-is in order to prove its authenticity and to allow a would-be buyer to make any decisions about the restoration process.
The unsigned painting underwent a forensic examination to test its chemical composition. Chemical evidence suggests the painting is likely authentic to Pollock’s period. The paint contains no materials found in paint in the early 1960s, meaning it would fall in the timeline of Pollock’s work.
“The forensic report came back, and nothing had been done to this painting, no paint, no testing, no alterations post-1955. He died in ‘56. We know it had to have been created during his life,” Levine says.
In 1996, the Pollock-Krasner Authentication Board disbanded after completing Pollock’s catalogue raisonné, making an official authentication of the painting in Levine’s possession impossible. But he says he is certain the painting is the real deal and has all the documentation and research to demonstrate it.
Levine said in all the years he’s worked in auction and appraisal, he’s never had a case as rare as this one. “I know the art world. I don’t know the New York high-end art world. It’s not like anything we’ve ever sold before,” Levine says.
The piece was expected to sell at auction in June for around $15 million. In the weeks prior to the auction, Levine held private viewings of the piece and a preview day on June 19. During the private viewings, Levine says, he had people flying in from all over the world to look at the piece.
On the day of the auction, Levine’s auction house filled with potential bidders and media.
Anticipation in the room was high, with the painting on display in a case. Levine took the stage on June 20 to explain how long the painting had been in the company’s possession as they tried to verify if it was an actual Pollock painting.
The painting was not auctioned that day, Levine says, due to issues vetting bidders who had placed bids online and “gamesmanship.” The auction was canceled with no plan to reschedule at that time.
“We’ve never represented a piece of this caliber or magnitude,” Levine says. “We’ve had other pieces we’ve had to sell as ‘attributed’ or ‘in the manner of’ because they’ve lacked the provenance. It always comes down to provenance.”
Levine will be hanging on to the painting for a little longer. He says the story behind the painting is as incredible as the painting itself. Levine believes there is room to either make a movie or write a book about Gordon’s life. Her story became so intricate, he found himself diving into so many leads on who she was and where she had been. “The woman, Jenifer, will live on,” Levine says.
He started to look into a photo shoot for Vogue where each model was photographed in front of a Pollock painting. All the models are credited along with the designers and photographers except for one model who bears resemblance to other photos of Gordon. He hasn’t fully investigated the images of the unnamed model, but he believes it ties into Gordon’s life story.
The painting has led him on a journey that Levine says he’s sad to see coming to a close. The story started on the chance that Levine’s company would come across such rare pieces of art, and ends with a painting to talk about for a lifetime. “Because we backed into it not thinking it was what it was,” Levine says, “we never thought it would be what it was.”