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Why the future of Man Ray's art lies in a Long Island car-repair shop

A visitor looks at the photo
A visitor looks at the photo "Tears" by Man Ray (1932) during the opening of the exhibition "Tears of Eros" at the Thyssen-Bornemisza museum in Madrid, on October 19, 2009.

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You've seen Man Ray's absurdist images. Like the photo of a woman's eye surrounded by glass beads, or a painting of floating red lips. His art is everywhere: on the walls of dorm rooms, on mass-produced T-shirts and even on hotel headboards.

Man Ray was one of the best-known Surrealists by the time he died in Paris in 1976. He hobnobbed with the likes of Hemingway and Picasso, and what's left of his art studio is now being housed in a car-repair shop on Long Island. Not exactly the first place a famous artist has his work stored at.

After his death, Man Ray left his works with his wife, Juliet. She died in 1991, and her extended family inherited the 4,500 art pieces she left behind. According to Wall Street Journal's art reporter Kelly Crow, those works are now housed in 16 fire-proof vaults at the car-restoration shop.

"They have a showroom with car upholstery samples, and once you go beyond that, past the cashier's desk, sort of back into the office area, you just start seeing these sub-zero-sized freezers ... only they have these amazing combination locks and deadbolts," she described.
Man Ray's relatives have already stirred up some controversy in the art world. They're getting up to their 70s and 80s, and want to cash out.

"[Man Ray's brother-in-law], Eric Browner, had told me that his sister had always wanted the works to go to an institution, somewhere where the public could see them and where scholars could have ready access to them," Crow explained. "Now that the last sibling of hers is getting up in years, I think he's feeling some pressure from the family and on himself to kind of just settle everything before she goes."

Their asking price for Man Ray's studio collection is $20 million, the appraised price in 2007. But some art experts say it's only worth about $6 million.Though it sounds like a hefty fee, Crow noted that the family pays large sums to keep the works safe. "There's a lot of care and feeding that goes with that. They're spending $20,000 a year from the premium to insure the works from fire and theft and the like," she added.

The Getty Research Institute has shown interest, but Crow said that doesn't mean they'll bite.

"They really built up a lot of their Man Ray collection in the last 5 years. They have a lot of scholarly things. Letters, and correspondences – the kinds of things that are not as overtly commercial as a photograph, or a painting on the wall," she said. "I think this could be the motherload, if the price ends up being right, or they can work it out with the family. Of course, just going out to visit the collection doesn't mean they're going to buy it."

According to Crow, the Getty told her they haven't spoken to their board about the deal specifically yet. She added that if the deal plays out, the family will make much more than the asking price.

"In addition to the physical contents, they also have the copyright to anything that Man Ray ever did – the family owns some 15,000 copyrights I think, for his output all together," she continued. "In addition, they own the rights to his name. So, in the same way that people can use a restaurants name, or celebrities can use their name the brand or endorse certain things, the family can use the name to do the same thing. They can make several hundred dollars a year from granting various companies the right to either use Man Ray's works and products, or kind of do it with his blessing."


Kelly Crow, who covers the art scene for the Wall Street Journal.