Last April, just inside the entrance to the “Salute to Israel” Festival at Rancho Park, the National Council of Jewish Women set up a large tented area where it sold all sorts of secondhand items from its thrift stores: clothes, Judaica, kitchenware, art.
I was rushing by when a painting of a pipe caught my eye. I stopped and looked down at the canvas it was painted on, and noticed who was smoking the pipe: Albert Einstein.
Einstein looked haimish and mythic, impish and wise and — something else.
“How much is it?” I said to the salesman.
“Eight hundred,” he said.
In the upper-left quadrant there was a gash, and a smaller, pencil-tip-sized hole beside it. “But it’s ripped,” I said. “Two hundred.”
Impulse buy? In a minute I’d just bought a damaged oil painting by an artist I never heard of, from what was essentially a junk shop at a street fair. And it was huge — at least 3 feet by 2 1/2 feet.
A few hours later, I walked with Einstein, awkwardly, down Motor Avenue.
“I give you $500 for that.”
A man, speaking in a Persian accent, was now walking beside me.
“I think,” I paused. “I think I’m in love with it.”
The man said he was an antiques dealer, and he knew where I could get it repaired.
“There is a guy,” he said. “I know he’s on Melrose. His name, Meir, I think? You tell him I send you. Yosef.”
Yosef helped me fit the painting into my car. It took a half hour.
While we were wrestling with it, I noticed a small black laminate plaque on the bottom of the frame. It read:
Acquired by Mr. H.W. Kramer and Mr.
N.A. Mier in the Fifth War Loan Campaign and presented to the federation of Jewish welfare organizations and gratefully
accepted by the board on July 18, 1944.
The date explained Einstein’s expression. It was painted at least a year before Hiroshima and Nagasaki, before Einstein would have to come to terms with the darkest uses of his genius. In this portrait, he looked innocent.
The plaque read “Meltzner.” But in the lower-right corner of the canvas the artist himself had signed his name, in straight capital letters: “PAUL MELTSNER.”
Whoever chose to discard Albert may have done a quick Google check based on the misspelling. There is no Paul Meltzner. But Meltsner with an “S”?
Bingo. Thank you, Internet.
Paul Meltsner was a renowned American Social Realist artist.
He was born in New York in 1905 and studied at the National Academy of Design. He sold his first painting to the government of Palestine in 1925. During the Depression, he toured the United States for the Works Progress Administration, painting farmers and factory workers. His 1937 self-portrait, “Paul, Marcella and Van Gogh” — Van Gogh was a terrier — was purchased by the Luxembourg Museum in Paris. The Nazis confiscated it during the German occupation because Meltsner was a Jew. Meltsner painted a copy in 1940 that now hangs in the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City.
When he learned that the Hermitage in Moscow had acquired the original, he demanded its return: Meltsner didn’t want the oppressors of Soviet Jews to enjoy his painting.
Meltsner’s Depression-era oils, woodcuts and lithographs depict workers with respect and dignity, and without pity. He interspersed these with sensual paintings of Martha Graham dancers and joyous paintings of New York street life.
In the ’40s, Meltsner turned to celebrities. His portrait of a fruit-bedecked Carmen Miranda became her iconic image. And he painted Einstein, twice.
In midlife, Meltsner left the city for Woodstock, N.Y., where he continued to paint in solitude, with no phone and no car. Just before he died, in 1966, a story turned up about him in an art journal. It was titled, “America’s Happiest Artist.”
Today, Meltsner’s paintings hang in the White House — Franklin Roosevelt collected him — and in dozens of museums, including the Smithsonian, the Hermitage, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Museum of Modern Art and the National Portrait Gallery. And there was one jammed like a bad coin into the slot behind my back seat — what about that one?
More Internet searching. In 1943, Meltsner donated eight of his portraits to be auctioned as part of a war bond drive. The auction was held at the I. Magnin department store in Beverly Hills. According to an archive report:
“A single painting of Meltsner’s — a portrait of Albert Einstein — caused a million dollars’ worth of war bonds to be sold in 1943 in Hollywood.”
That explained the plaque below my painting. The two men who acquired the portrait by purchasing a million dollars in war bonds donated the artwork to the Jewish Welfare Fund, the organization that would eventually become the Jewish Federation.
It hung on the wall at the old Federation building, then was removed to a basement or closet, then turned over to the National Council of Jewish Women as, essentially, junk.
I got back on the Internet, hunting for a painting restorer named Meir on Melrose. There was none. But I did find an art restoration place on Santa Monica Boulevard, and the name was Merab. Meltsner/Meltzner, Meir/Merab — does anybody sweat the details? I called.
The accent was thick. “How you get this number?” a gruff voice demanded.
“Are you Meir?” I asked. “Yosef gave me your number.”
“Call back other number,” the voice said, and hung up.
There was another number listed. I dialed.
“Yosef. The Persian. Yes, yes, yes, I know him,” the man said.
I explained I had a painting with a hole, and —
“You come!” he said, cutting me off.
“Now! Come now!”
I read out his address and asked him if it was the right one.
“How you get my address?!” he demanded.
“The Internet.” I was stammering now. “Everything is there.”
He hung up.
I pulled up in front of a storefront I had passed a million times and never noticed. It was low and dirty white. There was no address, no sign, no windows, and an unmarked white door, with no bell. I knocked. Einstein stared off at a boxing gym and a car leasing lot, puffing on his pipe. I knocked again.
The door flew open. A half-naked man with purple hands began waving at me.
“Come come come come COME!” he yelled.
I stood frozen. His torso was a tangle of gray hair and sweat. Giant goggles perched just over his eyes; his sparse gray hair shot up on his balding head, and his baggy pants were streaked in a thousand colors of paint. It was Einstein’s mad cousin.
“Paint dry paint dry paint dry!” he ordered, then spun around and raced away.
I followed him inside — and into one of the most remarkable places I’ve ever seen. A split second earlier, I had been on a drab L.A. street. Now Christopher Lloyd was showing me Marie Antoinette’s attic.
Every square inch of this dimly lit, cavernous space was filled with oils and sculptures and lamps and ceramics and watercolors and china. Art filled shelves and racks that reached to the ceiling. Paintings and pots and sculptures leaned up against one another on the floor. Some of it looked precious, some buried in dust, some gilded and resplendent.
I followed the man to the back, which was lit by an overhead lamp. He stood over a basin of thick purple paint and used a stiff brush to stir it furiously. Then he loaded the color on the brush and smeared it across a ceramic platter.
“Stand there!” He pointed me to a corner. “Paint dry.”
The man leapt from his seat, ran back to the bowl of paint, swirled it, then went back to the dish.
I stood, holding my painting, watching this man’s intense, focused labor.
“OK, dry.” He stepped back from the platter, excused himself and returned, wearing a shirt.
He examined the painting, told me how he could fix the tear so it would be unnoticeable, tighten and clean the frame, and, most importantly, take 80 years of dust and smoke and crud off the picture.
“Everything brighter,” he assured me. “Same color, what came from his brush, like original.”
He could see I was nervous — I kept using the word “patina” in a way I’m sure no art expert ever would. The man took my hand and pulled me through his room of art. He showed me paintings in the process of restoration, before and after. He named a price and wouldn’t budge.
I did the math. The man looked to be near 70 years old. He had a small warehouse of pricey art entrusted to him. He didn’t advertise.
“OK,” I said.
“OK,” he said, and took the painting. “Two weeks. Goodbye.”
“That’s it?”He now had Einstein; I had nothing.
I stood there, not wanting to insult him, but definitely wanting something to show when — my imagination was running wild — the authorities busted the longest-running art theft ring in L.A. history.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
I took out my iPhone to spell it.
“K-h-a —” he started.
“K-h-a,” I repeated.
“K-h-a —” he said again.
“Yes,” I said, “K-h-a.”
“Khakha!” the man said, exasperated.
“Caca?” I said.
“Khakhanashvili. K-h-a-k-h-a —”
“Oh!” I said. “Georgian.”
“Yes!” he said. Merab Khakhanashvili shook my hand quickly, then closed and locked the door.
I returned two weeks later. He pulled Einstein out of a corner, and moved him to the light.
Whatever colors Meltsner dipped his brush into were now there to see. Einstein leaned across his modest desk, a wall of books and his beloved violin behind him. Light fell on one long-fingered hand, which rested on an open text. His brown sweater now glowed in shades of russet and gold. His white-and-gray hair was a crown. Merab had worked magic.
“I tell you,” Mr. Khakhanashvili smiled. “Much better.”
After I brought the painting home, I made a few calls to get it appraised. After all, even though history records that Meltsner’s Einstein was sold for $1 million in war bonds, no one until me had ever actually paid a penny for the painting itself.
I’d like to be able to tell you it’s worth millions, but the truth is, I have no idea. Appraisers e-mailed and called, but I never followed up.
“Few are those who see with their own eyes and feel with their own hearts,” Einstein once said.
But Einstein led me to two such people: a driven, dedicated art restorer, laboring in obscurity behind an unmarked West Hollywood door; and Paul Meltsner, devoted to justice and to art, one of the most remarkable Jews I’d never heard of.
I look at Einstein and think of them, three exalted guests, permanent ushpizin in our home.
That, I’ve decided, is my appraisal.
Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow him on Twitter @foodaism.