CHICAGO, IL (June 7, 2010) – North Park University art professor Tim Lowly never expected to again see his painting “Carry the Body” after it was heisted from the wall of a local art gallery in 1991.
Last October, however, two antique dealers happened by a long-abandoned building scheduled for demolition and discovered the painting worth thousands of dollars buried beneath a pile of IOU slips and off-track betting cards. They were surprised by another discovery months later when they tracked down the artist.
The abandoned building at 3000 West Irving Park Road was located just one half mile from Lowly’s home.
The story is even more improbable than it sounds.
In 1991, “Carry the Body” was displayed at the Gwenda Jay Gallery as part of an early exhibition that had a major impact on Lowly’s career. In the middle of a rainy day, two men wearing trench coats lifted the painting from the wall after they distracted the gallery’s inexperienced assistant. She did not realize it was missing until several hours later.
The theft was reported to police and an image of the painting was filed in the Chicago Art Dealers’ Association database. No leads developed.
Over the nearly 20 years since the theft, Lowly resigned himself to never again seeing the painting, a painful emotional transition. “Losing a painting is like losing someone you know,” he recently told Marissa Barkey, a reporter for the North Park Press, the university’s newspaper.
“It was a real strong emotional and important painting to me because it evokes such a response,” Lowly said. “I had many artists write to me with what they interpreted the painting to be.”
Lowly created the painting in 1983 during a return trip to South Korea, where he had been raised. The artwork references his time growing up in the country.
Last October, Jayson Lambert and his business partner David Garr were scouring alleys and rummaging through dumpsters looking for discarded treasures they might sell at their soon-to-open store, Hoard Antiques. While stopped at a red light, the men noticed a man in a hard hat locking the building and asked if they could look inside.
In true Chicago style – flashing a couple of $20 bills to the man, a metal scrapper – Lambert and Garr gained admission.
Demolition crews already had smashed and scrapped old pinball machines, jukeboxes and slot machines. The antique dealers could only look on with disbelief and regret they had not arrived earlier.
The men needed a flashlight to help them explore the dark and musty upstairs hallway. It was easily apparent, however, from years of evidence left behind that the Chicago mafia had used the facility. Police had raided the building in 1979, 1997, and 2004.
Inside each of the rooms that lined the hallway were safes that had been cracked with paperwork strewn across the floor. “It was really creepy,” Lambert told the North Park Press.
The painting was on a desk covered with the IOU slips and betting cards. The men grabbed armfuls of what they could, deciding to sort through the items when they returned to their shop.
It was only then that the pair discovered the painting. They thought it “ridiculously good,” but didn’t do much with the piece until curiosity led them on an Internet search.
Finding the art in the abandoned building had been only the first of several plot twists. Garr was startled when he came across a website that referenced the work and labeled it stolen. He phoned a friend, an art dealer in New York, who appraised the painting at $10,000.
The dealer was as astounded as any guest on the Antiques Roadshow.
After months of determined work, the men tracked the painting to Lowly. What began for the men as a hunt through back alley dumpsters had turned into a nationwide search that led them almost to their backyard.
Garr and Lambert invited Lowly to the shop, where they handed him “Carry the Body.” Lowly offered the men a reward, but they declined.
The painting sustained only a few minor tears and a noticeable chip in the center. The artist is unsure whether he will have it repaired.
“I’m not going to separate it from the damage – that has become part of the painting’s story,” he explained. He is considering hanging it in a Los Angeles gallery. “I’d like it to end up in a museum.”
To read about Lowly and how the artist’s work has been influenced by his severely disabled daughter, Temma, click here.
Editor’s note: the accompanying photo originally appeared in the North Park Press.