Although he died a suicide in abject poverty, Van Gogh’s painting of iris blossoms sold a century later for $101 million. A Jackson Pollock work, consisting only of thousands of tiny splashes of paint he dripped onto a piece of fiberboard, was purchased a decade ago for nearly $152 million. A Picasso painting of a nude woman with green skin and contorted face went for a mere $95 million.
Could any of my long-ago student art work ever have commanded such prices? I’ll never know, because it all went up in smoke. Here’s my sad story. On graduation day in June 1951 from the Philadelphia Museum College of Art (now the University of the Arts), I received many congratulatory cards from family and friends.
Among the messages that day was also a telegram from the U.S. Navy. It ordered me to report for active duty the following week, along with all other members of my Naval Reserve Carrier Air Group. The Korean War had already been raging for a year, and now it was our turn to serve.
At home I had several hundred pieces of art created during my four college years. Most were charcoal and pastel drawings of live models. Some included clothed men and women, while others were of nude figures.
During student years, I studied for exams and did academic assignments in my family home basement. I displayed several dozen examples of my artwork on the walls, while the rest were stored in portfolios.
When I returned from the two-year tour of Navy duty, I went into the basement to check on my art. It was all gone and the walls were bare. When I asked my mother where the art had been stored, she replied she had put it in the furnace. She burned everything because she didn’t want to be embarrassed by the naked pictures when the gas man came to read the meter.
After all these years, I can only lament: what would have happened to today’s billion-dollar art market if the mothers of Picasso, Van Gogh and Pollock had torched all of their sons’ embarrassing work?