If you owned an Andy Warhol masterpiece possibly worth millions, would you forget you owned it? Alice Cooper did but now he's found it again, some 45 years later, rolled up in an ordinary poster tube in a long-disregarded storage space.
If you're thinking this is a story that could only happen to Cooper and the late, great pop artist Warhol, who died in 1987, you'd be right. As Shep Gordon, Cooper's manager for nearly 50 years and a star in his own right (2013's Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon), tells it, it's a pretty amazing story.
And it comes out just as Cooper is launching a new album, Paranormal, and preparing to bring his current tour to Las Vegas in August.
The story starts in the early 1970s, when Cooper and Warhol were pals hanging out together in New York at such hip joints as Studio 54 and Max's Kansas City nightclub and eatery.
At the time, Warhol was an emerging art star already noticed for his Campbell's Soup Cans paintings and his Death and Disaster series of shocking silk-screened prints from the mid-1960s. One of them, Small Electric Chair, was based on a 1953 newspaper photo of the electric chair in the death chamber at Sing Sing state prison in New York. (Warhol was preoccupied with death metaphors.)
Cooper was already a rock star putting out two or three albums a year and performing at around 100 concerts, which featured wacky, elaborate stage props — such as a replica of an electric chair.
"He used to get 'electrocuted' on stage," Gordon chuckles. "They both liked using something really shocking to make artistic statements."
Gordon says Cooper's girlfriend at the time, model Cindy Lang (she died in January), who posed for the second cover of Warhol's Interview magazine in 1973, bought a Small Electric Chair print, 22 inches by 28 inches, as a birthday present for Cooper, which cost $2,500.
“Alice has a faint recollection of talking to Andy about the picture at Studio 54, but not enough to put his hand on the Bible and say that it was," Gordon says. (Over-indulgence in drugs and alcohol does a number on one's memory, and Cooper has publicly addressed his past booze and cocaine use.)
But Cooper was on the road a lot and he was an alcoholic who soon ended up in rehab, Gordon says. Cooper rolled the print up and stuck it in a poster tube and shipped it with the rest of his tour equipment and stage props to a storage space in California.
"Life goes on, years go by," and the Warhol is forgotten, Gordon says.
Until about 2013 when Gordon and his friends, Los Angeles-based art collectors and dealers Jake and Ruth Bloom, are having dinner and the conversation turns to a recent auction of Warhol artworks that fetched millions. Gordon remembers that Cooper had a Warhol. Where is it, Ruth Bloom asks. No clue, Gordon says. Better find it, Bloom suggests.
It takes years but it is finally found. But it needs to be stretched, authenticated and valued, for insurance purposes if nothing else. At Bloom's suggestion, Gordon hires Richard Polsky, a dealer, author and Warhol specialist who runs the independent Richard Polsky Art Authentication service.
Polsky says he's "100% certain" it's an authentic Warhol, one of about 70-75 such prints of this image in various colors that Warhol made in 1964 and 1965. In particularly crisp versions, such as Cooper's, you can see the word "Silence" in the upper right.
He says $2,500 would have been the right price for it in the early 1970s because such macabre images of death, even drenched in Warhol's bright pop colors, didn't sell as well as his celebrity prints of Marilyn Monroe or Elizabeth Taylor and the like.
"How many people back then want to hang an electric chair in the living room?" Polsky says.
Polsky has not assigned a value to the Cooper print because so many factors can affect value, such as color and crispness. But he says the upper-range price paid at auction for a Little Electric Chair is $11.6 million in November 2015 for a green version.
Now what? Gordon says Cooper is mulling his options: Hang it, sell it or donate it.
Meanwhile, ever since the online magazine ArtNet did a story on Cooper's lost Warhol last week, Cooper is getting a lot of questions about it at public appearances.
"Ruth warned us, if (Polsky) says it's not real, you don't get a refund (on his fee)," Gordon says. "We said, let’s find out. It's not going to change our lives one way or another; after all, we've lived without it for 45 years."