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Artist James Rosenquist may have lost millions in Hernando County fire

ARIPEKA — The weekend fire that claimed the house and studios of internationally famous artist James Rosenquist left nothing inside to be salvaged.

And none of the contents — including 15 new canvases — was insured.

That isn't careless or really unusual, even for someone of the stature of Rosenquist, 75, who helped put pop art on the mainstream map beginning in the early 1960s.

Art's value is determined by what people have paid for it, a record of sales, and this art had no documented "value."

But given Rosenquist's reputation and longevity as a commercially successful artist, the hit he will take from the destroyed canvases is considerable when compared with his sales in the recent past, said Michael Findlay, director of Acquavella, a blue chip New York gallery that is Rosenquist's exclusive dealer.

Findlay put the loss at "anywhere from a few hundred thousand dollars to several million for new work, depending on various factors. That goes well into millions on the secondary (or resale) market."

Meanwhile, investigators from the state Division of Forestry were back at the fire scene Monday, searching for the cause of the blaze and trying to determine if there was one fire or two.

The Hernando Beach Volunteer Fire Department first responded to a fire in the area at 3 a.m. Saturday. When it got the fire contained, it called off a firefighter who was en route from the Division of Forestry.

More than 12 hours later, both agencies responded to a fire that was burning about 200 yards north of the first site and eventually destroyed Rosenquist's home and studios.

Did the first fire flare up again?

Steve Knowlton, chief of the volunteer fire department, said no. His firefighters put out the first fire and didn't depart until about 10 a.m., he said. "That thing was ice cold when we left."

His department heard reports of "a bunch of kids" rummaging through the thick underbrush shortly before the second fire, he said. "It's just awful suspicious."

The Division of Forestry, which is in charge of the investigation, has not confirmed that there were separate fires, spokesman Don Ruths said.

Though Rosenquist owns other houses and studios, Aripeka has been his primary dwelling since the 1970s, the place that has seen his greatest creative output since his rise to fame in the mid 1960s. It was then that he translated his work as a billboard painter into the enormous, graphic, colorful paintings that collaged common objects and images into iconic narratives of American culture.

The 15 new canvases were ready to be shipped to Acquavella Galleries for a fall show. Also lost was much archival material Rosenquist was organizing with Princeton University, which hoped to house it, plus a lifetime of personal possessions.

Fortunately, Rosenquist's most famous works — F-111, for example — are in museums or the possession of wealthy collectors.

"Ninety-nine percent of his output is owned by private individuals and public institutions," Findlay said.

Also fortunate: Information about his art that was on the office computer had been put on a backup system by his curator and survived.

On Monday, Rosenquist seemed resilient, even wry, about staying put:

"We've got haystacks here I can sleep under if I need to."

(He doesn't; he's staying at a small stilt house nearby he has used for guests.)

And he has a plan.

"First, we're going to figure out how to put the archive back together," he said. "Next, getting things ready so my men can start building stretchers (wood supports for the canvas). In another month, get back to working on ideas for the show. We're planning a working space and studio under the guest house."

Of the scorched site, part of a 100-acre tract he owns that includes forest and marshland, Rosenquist said: "I won't rebuild right away. I'll see what Mother Nature does first."

Lennie Bennett can be reached at lennie@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8293.

Artist James Rosenquist may have lost millions in Hernando County fire 04/27/09 [Last modified: Thursday, May 28, 2009 2:51pm]

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