AMESBURY — The phone isn’t working at John McInnis Auctioneers. Since the recent power outage from a late-October storm, the phone lines have been problematic at the cluttered auction house, located for the past 25 years in an old grocery store. Now, on a rainy Monday, they’re not working at all.
“Normally, they’d be ringing off the hook,” says Dan Meader, the gallery director. It’s a welcome break, he jokes: “Maybe we can get some work done.”
The small staff have their work cut out for them as they prepare for what could be one of the biggest estate sales in McInnis’s 37-year history. On December 1 and 2, the auctioneers will throw open their doors to the public to bid on the contents of the riverfront home of Harriett Gould, the late grande dame of an old Yankee family who collected antique heirlooms, had a familial connection to Nathaniel Currier (of Currier and Ives fame) – and, up in the attic, socked away a stash of Andy Warhol’s work and effects, unseen for 30 years.
That’s Warhol, the Pop Art revolutionary with the silvery wig, in a Gould family snapshot, sitting on a wooden chair on the lawn of Harriett’s house on Easter Sunday 1984. He was there as the guest of the young man he’d been infatuated with since they met in 1980 — her son, Jon Gould, a Harvard graduate who was then an executive at Paramount Pictures. Gould, who died in 1986, one year before Warhol, has often been called the artist’s muse in his later years.
Gould’s name comes up often in “The Andy Warhol Diaries,” published in 1989. But little more is known about their relationship, since Gould chose to live outwardly as a straight man. When he died, of AIDS-related complications, his distraught mother had all his belongings shipped to Amesbury from his last home in Beverly Hills, “right down to the toiletries,” says Meader, who spent most of last summer sifting through Harriett’s house. “It was a tragic loss for her.”
Gould’s private collection of Warhol artworks debuted in 2004, at the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center. At the time, Jay Gould, Jon’s twin and the founder of the Flatbread Company pizza chain, told the Globe, “There’s so much mystery around Andy, and Jon was such a big part of his life for several years, that my brother would like this happening. Even if only one person walked in and saw the show and was affected – well, Jon was that type of guy.” But even many Warhol scholars have been unaware of the cache Harriett Gould hung onto.
“She cherished every little object,” says McInnis. “She squirreled things away, put things in a cabinet and forgot about them.”
Though the auctioneers were familiar with the Warhol connection, they had no idea what to expect when they first agreed to conduct the estate sale. Harriett, who was 94 when she died at home last year, had been a local philanthropist and a regular attendee at McInnis auctions.
“Everyone loved Harriett,” says McInnis, who grew up around his father’s southern New Hampshire antique shops.
After McInnis did an initial walk-through of the Gould home, Meader showed up for his first day of what would become weeks of work, sorting through the considerable stockpile of the matriarch’s long life. As he focused his eyes in the overstuffed, dimly lit attic, one item in a pile quickly caught his attention.
At first glance it looked like more trash headed for the dumpster outside: a crumpled sheet that appeared to be an old New York Post front page. “MARINE DEATH TOLL HITS 172,” the headline blared. But when Meader picked it up, he realized it was an original Warhol — a silkscreen on aluminum sheeting, purposefully roughed up to resemble street trash. On the back, the work is inscribed from Warhol to Gould.
A similar print, uncrumpled and unsigned by Warhol, sold at Christie’s in 2006 for more than $100,000, Meader notes: “That’s how rare this is.”
The Warhol-related items, which will make up the second day of the auction, include personal gifts for Gould, such as signed books, Native American baskets (which Warhol collected), and a pair of carousel horses, another of his obsessions. There are also pieces related to some of Warhol’s contemporaries of the 1980s — the painters Keith Haring (or “Herring,” as Gould spelled it in his leather-bound address book), Kenny Scharf, and Jean-Michel Basquiat. The latter’s vivid skull painting “Untitled” sold earlier this year for $110 million, topping a previous Warhol sale as the highest price ever paid for the work of an American artist.
But the auction house thinks the gem of the auction is a one-of-a-kind piece that Meader uncovered under a pile of Hermes scarves, tucked away in bubble wrap: a strange memento created from a broken, twisted section of framed canvas, dolloped with paint and signed from Warhol to Gould in 1983. With no Warhol work to compare to, the auctioneers are estimating it could be worth $500,000.
Meader, McInnis, and their colleagues are well aware that some might scoff at the “artfulness” of “Abstraction,” as they’re calling the piece.
“Whether you like his art or not, this guy was brilliant,” says Meader. “He stayed in the forefront all those decades. He knew what he was doing.”
Though McInnis Auctioneers may be located in a humble storefront in an old mill town, this certainly won’t be the first time they’ve trafficked in big-ticket items. McInnis says his breakthrough came when he helped a woman sell a painting by the renowned Korean folk painter Park Soo-keun for $385,000, after the major auction houses turned her down. About 15 years ago, he sold a long-lost landscape painting by Martin Johnson Heade for more than a million dollars.
A few years ago, McInnis handled the estate of the late Dave Powers, a close confidant of President John F. Kennedy. Collectors from around the globe bid on letters, photos, and keepsakes until 5 o’clock in the morning. A bomber jacket that once belonged to JFK went for $570,000.
The McInnis staffers are eager to see what the Warhol auction brings. It’s an unreserved sale; there is no hidden minimum on any of the items.
“We don’t want to scare anyone away,” says Meader.
Warhol authenticator Richard Polsky, who is based in the San Francisco Bay Area, declines to speculate on the worth of “Abstraction.” But he appreciates the auctioneers’ effort to tell an untold story about Warhol and his companion Gould.
“Everybody loves a treasure hunt,” Polsky says. “There’s a market for every Warhol product. It’s sort of like the Beatles — exponentially, Warhol gets bigger every year.”
Polsky is particularly interested in the black-and-white photo prints Warhol stitched together into a collage for Gould, a practice he used for one of his last gallery shows.
It was Lowell native Christopher Makos, a photographer for Warhol’s Interview magazine, who taught him to use a camera. Makos also introduced Warhol to Gould.
Makos met Gould in 1980, at the gala New York City premiere for “Can’t Stop the Music,” the Village People movie. Warhol, feeling low about a breakup with his previous boyfriend, had asked Makos to help him find a new one, and the photographer thought Gould might make a good candidate.
“I know Jon really cared a lot about Andy, but from what I can gather, I’m pretty sure there was no sexual content there,” Makos says.
He thinks Gould and Warhol had a deeply meaningful relationship.
“Just because you have a lot of money and fame doesn’t mean you’re happy,” Makos says. “It’s not that much fun to have all that and not be able to share it.”James Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @sullivanjames.