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Archive for Wednesday, October 6, 2004

Renowned artist’s work mistakenly sold for $20

Wichita officials want sculpture back

October 6, 2004

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— A valuable piece of work by a sculptor perhaps best known for his massive stainless steel fixture at the World Trade Center was mistakenly auctioned off here among surplus office equipment and dated Christmas decorations.

The four pieces of James Rosati's 1981 sculpture "Upright Form V" -- likely worth thousands of dollars -- ended up on the auction block with other items the city kept in storage.

Wichita resident Matthew Cuellar snagged one of the sculptures for $20 before city officials realized their mistake. Now they're trying to get it back.

Cuellar showed up at the sale -- held every three years -- Saturday morning, casually perusing the offerings. He spotted a shiny, 17-inch-long stainless steel piece set atop a stove.

He found two other similar pieces, one inscribed with Rosati's name. A call to a friend was placed, the significance of the find was confirmed and a bid was placed.

And for $20, it was his.

Two other pieces of the sculpture went up for sale later, and Cuellar got in a bidding war, eventually winning them for $230. But when Cuellar went to pay for the two others, auction workers realized they were dealing with more than scrap metal. They wouldn't take his money and refused to turn over the remaining pieces of the sculpture.

The loser had earlier won the fourth piece, and sold it to Cuellar for $25.

"Somehow those four pieces were not in the area where they should have been," said John D'Angelo, director of CityArts, who was called to the auction to identify the pieces. "They got moved."

The city attorney's office contacted Cuellar on Monday, asking him to return his half of the sculpture in return for his payment.

It may not be that easy.

Cuellar said he called Sotheby's about his newfound art. Once he determines its value, he said, he will accept one-third to return it.

"If I'd later found out it was just scrap metal," the 30-year-old Wichita man said, "they wouldn't give me my money back."

Rosati, who died in 1988, was known for large, metal sculptures that combined cubism with minimalism. His "Ideogram," a 25-foot-tall piece between the twin towers, was one of hundreds of pieces of art lost in the rubble of downtown Manhattan after the 9-11 attacks.

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