In Philly, selling off the art of New York's famed Chelsea Hotel

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There was always a longstanding rumor that Chelsea Hotel manager Stanley Bard accepted art for rent. Now, his collection of famous works is up for auction.

As Stanley Bard, the longtime manager of the Hotel Chelsea, once told a reporter, he tended to “allow things to go on that you couldn’t do in the Hilton.”

That tolerant attitude may have paved the way for the New York City institution’s darker reputation as the place where Sid Vicious killed his girlfriend, Nancy Spungen. But it also made it a destination for countless artists, musicians, writers, and actors, many of whom became close friends of Bard’s, who managed the hotel from 1963 to 2007.

Bard died this year, and on Tuesday, his collection of 88 artworks — many of them purchased, given, or bartered from famous Chelsea residents — will go up for auction at Freeman’s in Philadelphia.

Alasdair Nichol, vice president of Freeman’s, said that for him, this sale was personal. He had learned of Chelsea lore from Florence Turner, a friend who wrote a book about the hotel. “The stories she used to tell — about Mapplethorpe having his nipple pierced there!”

But as he prepared for the sale, Nichol encountered a history even richer than he had realized.

“I didn’t know Stanley Kubrick had been there, that Arthur C. Clarke had written 2001 there,” he said. “It’s just got a fascinating history. I can’t think of any other hotel in the world that quite has its reputation. You have the Plaza or the Savoy, but no place that contributed to the cultural life in this way.”

Camera icon Courtesy of Freeman's
Larry Rivers painting, Art and the Artist: Portrait and Painting of Arshile Gorkey, is up for auction at Freeman's.

Leonard Cohen wrote a song about it. Dee Dee Ramone wrote a book about it. Andy Warhol made a film about it. Patti Smith and Sam Shepard wrote a play about it.

There have been novels and memoirs, documentaries, a dance piece.

Poet Dylan Thomas died there. Arthur Miller lived at the Chelsea after divorcing Marilyn Monroe; Ethan Hawke stayed there after divorcing Uma Thurman.

Throughout, many artists lived or kept studios there, attracted by cheap rents, northern exposure, and Bard’s easygoing approach.

“There was always a long-standing rumor in the building that Stanley accepted art for rent,” said Ed Hamilton, a longtime Chelsea resident who wrote a book, Legends of the Chelsea Hotel, in 2007.

“Over the years, Stanley was well-known for helping artists in any way he could, financially, emotionally, and by providing a nurturing environment that fostered creativity, and he would continue to fight for their well-being up until the very end of his tenure.”

The most valuable work in the auction is a painting by pop artist Tom Wesselmann, a shaped canvas depicting a close-up image of a woman’s mouth, her bright-red lips parted in, er, enthusiasm. Its estimated value is $600,000 to $800,000. On its back is an inscription, “For Stanley with affection — Tom Wesselmann.”

Camera icon Courtesy of Freeman's
Face 1, a painting on a shaped canvas by Tom Wesselman, is the most valuable work up for auction at Freeman's on Tuesday.

There’s an abstract expressionist portrait by Larry Rivers and a set of etchings by Francesco Clemente, both regulars at the hotel. There’s an inviting watercolor swimming pool by David Hockney, who came to stay awhile. There’s also an extensive collection of work by the Australian modernist Sidney Nolan, and several more by Ashcan School artist John French Sloan, who was a newspaper artist for the Inquirer before moving to an apartment at the Chelsea.

A drawing for a proposed Christo installation, called The Mastaba of Abu Dhabi, is also included. Christo and his wife, Jeanne-Claude, used their room at the hotel as a studio when in town.

At a highlights-only preview in New York last week, a couple of art collectors were especially interested in a piece by the French artist Martial Raysse, two eyes glaring from a red color field. They liked the image — but not the condition of the paper it was on.

“I can see there are issues,” one said to Nichol, squinting at the rippling paper. “Do you work with a conservator?”

Some pieces are estimated at less than $1,000 — so a piece of Chelsea history may be within reach for many.

Dunham Townend, head of modern and contemporary art at Freeman’s, said current and former hotel residents had been visiting the preview, sharing stories of Bard and life at the Chelsea.

Mostly, they’re stories of bygone times. The hotel has been undergoing renovations since 2011, with the goal of attracting a much more upscale clientele.

“For the remaining tenants, life at the Chelsea Hotel is noisy and dusty during the days as the seemingly never-ending construction continues,” said Hamilton, who remains in one of the rent-stabilized units.

“And the nights can be deadly quiet.  There used to always be something going on, and that’s the sad thing.  It’s the ending of a way of life.”

The Stanley Bard Collection: A Life at the Chelsea, previews through Monday, auction 6 p.m., Tuesday, at Freeman’s, 1808 Chestnut St., 215-563-9275, freemansauction.com.