Chelsea Hotel artists to landlord: Return our art

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© Larry Rivers, courtesy Marlborough Chelsea, New York An earlier iteration of artwork previously on display at the Chelsea Hotel: Larry Rivers’ “Dutch Masters Silver” (1969; acrylic, oil, charcoal and fiberboard collage on canvas; 90 x 70 1/2 x 14 in., 228.6 x 179.07 x 35.56 cm). This work is currently included in the exhibition “Bernhardt, Frost, Kitaj, Rivers, Schumann, Williams” — on view on the second floor of Marlborough Chelsea (545 W. 25th St., btw. 10th & 11th Aves.) through March 24.

BY BONNIE ROSENSTOCK  |  For decades, visitors to the Chelsea Hotel have been awestruck by the vast collection of artwork filling the walls in the lobby and along the stairways — by those still residing at the iconic hotel on West 23rd Street, by artists who passed away and by artists who’ve passed through and left a bit of themselves behind.

But that is all gone. The walls have been stripped bare by the Chetrit Group (who bought the hotel in August 2011). These days, the only hanging is an unfriendly “no photography” sign posted at the entrance — although, with the hotel closed for renovation, there is not much to photograph. And thus far, the owners have ignored all requests to divulge where the artwork is.

Mickie Esemplare, an 11-year hotel resident, recalled that when he came home on the night of November 12, 2011, it was all gone, without warning. Esemplare had hung a collage (a gift from a friend) on the wall next to his apartment. “We were told to get a letter from former owner Stanley Bard, saying that he allowed us to put the artwork there. A few people did that, and nobody has gotten artwork back.”

Zoe Pappas, president of the Chelsea Hotel Tenants Association, Mary Anne Rose and Colleen Weinstein witnessed the works being removed and hauled off in a truck. Weinstein, the widow of artist, photographer and nightclub impresario Arthur Weinstein, called the police. “She showed them papers stating she owned her husband’s artwork, but they couldn’t do anything about it,” said Rose.

One of the prominent pilferings is Larry Rivers’ “Syndics of the Drapery Guild as Dutch Masters,” 1978/79. A paint and wood construction, the work is an early example of his relief paintings “like a big cigar box,” explained David Joel, executive director of the Larry Rivers Foundation in Bridgehampton, Long Island (who spoke to Chelsea Now by phone). “Rivers [who died in 2002] had a long history at the Chelsea,” said Joel. “The work had been on loan since about 1998 and displayed in the lobby on one of the walls, near the main entrance, I think.”

Ron Spencer of Carter Ledyard & Milburn LLP, who represents the foundation in this matter, stated that it is not a lawsuit yet. “If it comes to that, we will be forced to do so,” he said. He has written several letters to the owners and has gotten no answer. He has an affidavit by a resident, a friend of Rivers, that relates in great detail how the painting got on the wall. “It was definitely not any kind of gift. It was a loan for the wall by Larry Rivers,” Spencer asserted.

“I think their position is, ‘We bought the hotel and all the contents, so the painting is ours.’ Simply because you buy real estate doesn’t mean [you own] everything in it. I had one telephone conversation with some fellow who claimed to be management months ago and haven’t heard a thing since. They think we are going away, but we are not. If we don’t get any kind of satisfaction, we will have to make a legal claim in NYS Supreme Court,” said Spencer.

Spencer said the Larry Rivers Foundation is open to lending another Rivers piece — “If their idea is to have the Chelsea Hotel become an indicator of artists. But not this particular painting. It is a very important artwork,” he said.

It is part of a series, based on a 1662 Rembrandt oil painting of a group of textile guild members, famously reproduced on Dutch Masters cigars packaging. An earlier iteration of the missing artwork is currently on exhibit on the second floor of Marlborough Chelsea, 545 West 25th Street, through March 24.

Sam Himmelstein of Himmelstein, McConnell, Gribben, Donoghue & Joseph represents Weinstein and has made several demands that the artwork be returned. He also wants to know where the art is being kept, whether it is insured, protected from moisture, stored correctly, etc., but has been stonewalled. “They haven’t answered a single question, except in platitudes,” he said.

Esemplare also lamented that management took out all the WiFi in the lobby. “We could sit there with a laptop and talk to other residents and guests. Now it’s very quiet, almost eerie. It’s lost its soul,” he said.

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