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October 2, 2014

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Painting causing stir at UNLV

It’s not an original, artist’s attorney says, and he’d like it removed

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Steve Marcus

A painting thought to be by Frank Stella hangs in the lobby of Judy Bayley Hall at UNLV Thursday, Oct. 1, 2009.

Stella Painting

A painting thought to be by Frank Stella hangs in the lobby of Judy Bayley Hall at UNLV Thursday, Oct. 1, 2009. Launch slideshow »

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For more than a decade, UNLV thought it had a valuable Frank Stella painting hanging in the lobby of the Judy Bayley Theatre. The painting was something of a mystery. The owner, who loaned it to UNLV, died. Someone called shortly after to claim the painting, but never responded with proof of ownership.

So there it hangs. Unsigned, undated, tattered and torn with a broken frame and no official provenance. Theatergoers pass beneath it. Professors have questioned its preservation — or lack thereof. Students study it.

But is it really a Stella?

After Stella looked at an image of the UNLV painting that the Sun sent to the artist through the Paul Kasmin Gallery in New York, his attorney Neale Albert called the newspaper to say he was issuing a letter to the university.

Stella wants the painting destroyed.

“It’s not a Frank Stella,” Albert said. “There was a man in New York over 10 years ago who was commissioned to copy some Frank Stellas. He made them. Sold them. The people who bought them thought they bought a Frank Stella painting. Every once in a while, one of the paintings shows up.”

Albert said he believes the UNLV painting might be one of them.

Stella would like UNLV to give it to him to destroy — or have them destroy it, Albert said.

Jeff Koep, dean of the College of Fine Arts, said through a publicist Wednesday that he was unavailable for comment on the recent discovery.

It’s likely UNLV would have the same problem destroying it as it has had preserving or authenticating it — it doesn’t own it.

University officials said they haven’t sought the descendants of the woman who donated the painting, and finding its rightful owner might not be easy.

The painting’s origins can be traced only to when it arrived at UNLV in 1998. A widow named Ruby Arkow contacted Koep. She had recently moved to Las Vegas from Chicago and her husband, Louis, had died. She was moving into a smaller place — too small to hang the painting, which appears to be about 7 feet by 4 feet — and asked Koep if UNLV would be able to display the work in a visible location. He sent art professor Robert Tracy to look at the art and then agreed to take the work.

It was an “indefinite loan,” Koep said a few weeks ago. Arkow told him she was filing paperwork that would give title of the painting to UNLV, he said. “It’s ours to restore and do whatever.” That was in March 1998. By the end of April the painting was collected, archived, insured and hung.

Ruby Arkow died in 1999. According to records, the Arkows had no children.

The UNLV work resembles paintings from Stella’s “Protractor Series” — brightly colored geometric paintings on shaped canvasses — which is why university staff involved didn’t question its authenticity, said Jerry Schefcik, director of the school’s Donna Beam Fine Art gallery.

An art expert, who wished to remain anonymous, originally thought it might be “Takht-i-Sulayman I,” a 1967 painting purchased by Robert A. Rowan, a Pasadena art collector.

But that proved untrue. The colors, which are much more vibrant in the painting at UNLV, are dissimilar. It was close enough, however, to fool several people.

Works by Stella are in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Guggenheim Museum, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Tate Collection. A 1968 painting, “Grey Scramble,” from another Stella series, sold for $2.5 million at auction in November 2007.

When asked about copies and forgeries of paintings, Sharon Flescher, executive director of International Foundation for Art Research, said that as many as 70 percent or more of works submitted to IFAR’s Authentication Research Service are not by the artist to whom the art was attributed. “In most cases,” she says, “these are simply misattributions or ‘overly optimistic’ attributions, rather than examples of deliberate fakes or forgeries.”

Albert, Stella’s attorney, said he doesn’t know the name of the man who painted the Stella copies and has sent out several letters similar to the one being delivered to UNLV.

If the school doesn’t destroy the painting or take it out, Albert suggests a placard to hang next to the work: “This is not a Frank Stella painting.”

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