A treasure trove of art on sale in Tacoma to fund film

To finance a documentary, artist Jack Gunter will auction off much of his rare collection of specialty art

Staff writerMay 2, 2014 

Jack Gunter will have a few tough goodbyes to say Saturday at Tacoma’s Sanford and Son auction house: a Frank Lloyd Wright bed, some William Morris glass sculptures, a set of Chuck Close murals painted on kitchen cabinets.

But if the Camano Island artist’s collection of 20th century design heroes nets him about $300,000 as he hopes, it’ll be worth it.

Gunter is looking to fund a self-made film about his 2013 expedition to hunt down a set of his own paintings left behind in Siberia after the Iron Curtain came down. He hopes that selling most of his current collection will do the trick, especially given the prominence and rarity of some of the pieces.

“I’m selling 270 items — pretty much everything I have,” said Gunter, an artist and author who’s been collecting and dealing antiques since 1978. “A lot of it so rare and valuable, I thought that it would be better to put them all in a lot.”

Gunter chose Sanford because he’s known owner Alan Gorsuch since the 1970s and likes his “quirky auction style.”

Quirky’s a good word for Gunter as well. An artist with a chemistry degree and connections to folks such as Barbra Streisand, he’s most famous for his depictions of flying pigs and satirical humor.

“Jack’s a great guy,” Gorsuch said. “He’s crazy.”

The backstory of Gunter’s film combines Cold War-era drama with his eccentric art. A Russian trade delegation approached him in the 1980s to send some art for a museum show in Siberia. He painted a series of works showing Stanwood, his home base on Camano, as an “erotic love zone, with planes crashing at the airport.”

In 1989, he traveled with the work, which was shown at the Novosibirsk State Art Museum. He returned the next year to collect his paintings — only to be denied permission to take his work out of the country.

“They were going through the end of the regime there, and couldn’t find the paperwork,” Gunter said. “It’s been eating me up ever since that I wanted to get those paintings back.”

In 2013, Gunter held a fundraiser to get himself and fellow filmmakers Ken Rowe and Jesse Colver back to Siberia to track down the works and film the process.

Snippets of quasi-ironic footage were posted on Facebook, to gleeful acclaim. He even got NPR commentator Andrei Codrescu to narrate by promising him $1,000, a painting and a weekend at a Camano Island inn.

Gunter hopes to finish up the editing by June. He needs about $300,000 to get “The Search for the Lost Paintings of Siberia” through post-production.

The item he’s hoping nets the most at Saturday’s auction also might be the most unusual: a set of kitchen doors painted with a mural attributed to American painter Chuck Close.

Known for his enormously enlarged and pixelated portraits, Close is thought to have painted murals all over the kitchen of a Robert Reichert-designed house on Lake Stevens where he once lived, Gunter said.

A later owner brought Gunter four cabinet doors to sell — and when he pieced them together, they formed a single abstract design of swirling blue and gray.

“It could go for a huge amount of money, maybe $100,000,” said Gunter, who contacted Close through his New York gallery to offer him first refusal. “Or people could see it as just a curio. It’s a wild card. We’re all excited about it.”

Part of the doors’ sale price will go to the original consigner, part to the film fund.

Other items in the auction, currently displayed in Sanford’s second room for preview, have equally wild stories behind them, and just as much potential value.

Leaning against the wall next to an old scale is a light-brown box frame and wood panel bed, a little chipped and scratched but with a beautifully simple design and diamond edges.

Only the item sticker gives anything away: under the number is “FLW,” indicating this is one of the last pieces of furniture designed by iconic architect Frank Lloyd Wright.

Gunther pursued ownership of the bed across the country years ago and brought it back from New Mexico tied to the roof of his car. He has had it in storage because his island cabin doesn’t have a bedroom big enough for the 96-inch-square platform. Letting it go breaks his heart, he said.

“It’s been a total thrill to own a Frank Lloyd Wright bed all these years,” he said.

Also for sale are five panels of Gunter’s own, a 1992 painting called “Garden of Surgical Delights,” which portrays a dystopian cityscape filled with marching Russian priests and soldiers, tall birch-trunk smokestacks, open-air medical procedures and a Biblical crucifixion.

Gorsuch has no idea how things will go Saturday, especially since this is his first auction in years to run concurrently live and online.

“There is a lot of specialty stuff here,” he said. “There are quite a few things that are very, very rare. … There are things nobody’s ever seen before. So I really do not know.”

And while Gorsuch has seen a Warhol sketch go through Sanford and Son, he’s never sold a Chuck Close.

“There’s been a lot of interest here at the shop, and nationally and internationally,” he said. “There are things nobody’s ever seen before.”

Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568

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