Art Janitor Stories (New York): The Case of the Damaged Warhol
In the swirling toilet bowl that is the art world, the auction business is the head turd. The rest of the bits floating about are all the people who get sucked into the wake of its romance and necessity. There are the fragile Europeans whose hands have never touched soil, the fashionable gay men with their city-issued savoir faire, the entitled interns who were the offspring of NY's elite, the blue-collar workforce from the outer boroughs, and then....the worst of them all - the middle class art migrants; who left the comfort of the suburbs and it's wide open parking spaces for the privilege of following their dreams of being an artist in the big city.
That was me, and I was an Art Handler. The lowliest cog in the art world machine. Like Art Oompa Loompa's, we were meant to move in the periphery, shuffle art around, "guard" them from damage, and not be seen. With time, I wiggled my way into the Post/War Contemporary Department, arguably the most prestigious of the Art Handler caste system, and I had established enough clout with my fellow inmates to be cocksure and comfortable. But like Icarus, I flew too close to the sun, and It was in that pool of content and hubris that the story of the "Damaged Warhol" takes place.
I had received a call from up on high that an important Warhol was about to arrive today and only I could be there to receive it on the dock. " I don't want those guys touching that bloody piece, it is too valuable!" said the posh head of sale, Niles Tenpenny. - a pale and soft man. "Yes sir," I said. Making sure to write a note, set an alarm, and do everything in my power to be there when that piece came in. Of course, I forgot, and I was late to get there. The guys on the dock had already opened it, so I told them to quickly put it back in the crate and I will take it from here. I put it in the warehouse and made the call to the boss that the piece was in and secure.
You see....this was one of Warhol's rarest pieces, a four-sided silk screened canvas stretched over a wood frame and wrapped in cellophane by the man himself. I opened up the crate and pulled it out to check every square inch of it for damage, feeling in my head like Indiana Jones, rescuing the arch of the covenant from those dock savages. Niles called to say he would be down in a few minutes so I prepared the piece to be presented to him. I decided to put the piece back in the crate just in case he was worried it was too exposed. That was the wrong move. I forgot that I had left one of the crate brackets inside the crate and when I placed it back in...I heard the scariest sound one could hear in the art world -- the crisp tearing of canvas.
I was stuck. I could hear the pounding of his wing tips making their way towards my ignorance; every minute seemed like a second and I had to think quickly. What would I do? He came around the corner in a frenzy saying, " Where is it?". I took a deep breath and said, "I need to tell you something." I then felt my ethics, conscience, and morality (the holy trinity of humanity) leave my body, and I said, " I think the dock damaged the art." I couldn't believe that the words left my mouth. The instinct to protect myself was uninhibited. I quickly regretted it. His face went flush as it filled with rage and his eyes independently blinked like an owl. "Heads will roll. Follow me to the dock, I want to know who did it!" Jesus Christ..... this won't turn out well.
We went upstairs and he stormed into the security room declaring that he needed an immediate review of the cameras from the dock. The security staff went into a full investigative mode and I felt a tingling in my backside which was probably due to the fact I was about to crap my pants. They pulled up the tapes searching for the culprit that didn't exist and the anxiety was building and building. I couldn't take it, I was just going to admit it, " It was me! It was me god damn it!", I wanted to scream. But, just before I could, the most incredible thing happened. Niles shouted, " There it is! Roll the tape back".
Right before my lying eyes, the video showed a dock worker turning around and accidently kicking the dolly that the crate was sitting on, sending both flying off the dock in a violent manner and out of frame. Here it was, a gift from the universe, "I could easily walk away and no one would ever know", I thought. Then, a second thought came to me, "Maybe I'm the anti-christ, and this was the beginning of my reign on earth.". Niles was poised like a cobra and ready to spring on the neck of that poor soul; who was a nice guy, and yeah he would massacre the names of artists from time to time with his 1930's New York accent, " Hey kid, I got dat err-uhh Handy Hoeharl for yoos.", but he didn't deserve this.
I realized in the end that the only real savage on this dock was me, and I couldn't believe what I had become. This was one of the worst things I've ever done. Did the Big Apple turn me into a big a-hole, or was I just born that way? I fessed up and told the boss-man that I had damaged that piece because I only noticed the tear after I put it in the crate again. Niles was pissed, probably didn't talk to me for a month, but that was a small price to pay for a man's innocence. The Warhol was restored and went to auction and no one was the wiser. I couldn't help but think that ol' Handy Hoeharl only got it half right.........it was my 15 minutes......not of fame, but of infamy.