KUTZTOWN, Pa. -- The auctioneer billed it as a painting by "one of America's most sought after contemporary artists," an "American treasure" that had been "left for lost" in a woman's attic for 20 or so years.
If true, the seven-foot "Hope" painting that the auctioneer claimed was by Keith Haring, the famed pop artist who died in 1990 at age 31, would likely command tens of thousands of dollars at sale.
This painting may or may not be by famed pop artist Keith Haring.
(Bradley C. Bower AP)
But questions about its authenticity and provenance have killed plans to auction the piece, at least for now. Instead, it will merely be put on display tomorrow while hundreds of other items are sold at a two-day spring antique auction in nearby Kimberton.
At first glance, and to the untrained eye, the painting looks like something that Haring would have done.
Haring, who grew up in this quaint college town in Pennsylvania Dutch country, mounted shows worldwide and reproduced his work on a mass scale on T-shirts, posters, coffee mugs and other inexpensive items. His art, marked by colorful geometric shapes, bold lines and recurring motifs such as radiating babies and flying saucers, continues to be promoted by the eponymous foundation he started shortly before his death of AIDS.
The longtime president of the Keith Haring Foundation is Kermit Oswald, a childhood friend and perhaps the world's leading authority on Haring's work.
On Tuesday, Oswald declared "Hope" to be a fake. But here's the rub: The seller is his cousin, and the two apparently don't care much for one another. Ed Oswald maintained that "Hope" is an authentic Haring, and said Kermit Oswald is biased because the two had a falling-out years ago. Kermit Oswald said the only thing influencing his judgment is his decades of professional experience.
Caught in the middle is auctioneer Ron Rhoads, who had triple bypass surgery a few weeks ago and said he can't take all the stress.
The piece in question was painted on the flip side of a cheap piece of wood paneling and shows a yellow stick figure holding aloft a red heart. The word "HOPE" is printed within the heart's outlines. Thick squiggles radiate outward, a Haring trademark. It is unsigned.
Julia Gruen, the Haring Foundation's executive director, said there are many telltale signs that Haring did not paint "Hope." She declined to go into specifics, saying she did not want to give any help to potential forgers.
Interest had been mounting in "Hope," fueled in part by the story of how the work was discovered. Kermit Oswald grew up next door to his aunt and uncle, Helen and Fox Cartwright, who knew Haring from childhood. Fox Cartwright, now 79, said that sometime in the 1980s, he spied "Hope" at an auction and, believing it to be a Haring, bought it. The piece sat on his back porch for a few weeks. He and his wife thought it was ugly, and he considered tossing it. Instead, it wound up in the attic of his print shop, a small building to the rear of his house.
There it remained until a few months ago, when 81-year-old Helen Cartwright ordered her husband to get rid of all the junk he'd accumulated over the years. So he contacted his nephew, Ed Oswald, himself an antiques buff, to sell whatever he could. Oswald rummaged through the print shop and, in the attic, spied what looked like a large painting sandwiched between an old shutter, pieces of plywood and sheets of insulation.
It was "Hope."
Ed Oswald had met Haring a few times and immediately thought "Hope" to be the artist's work. Now, despite evidence now to the contrary, he still believes that to be the case.