Last of the bohemians

A much-anticipated auction will sell nearly 100 artworks that belonged to the late owner of the Chelsea Hotel

Stanley Bard (credit: Freeman’s)

Scaffolding has replaced the artwork that used to line the hallways of the Chelsea Hotel, once home to an eclectic mix of artists, writers and musicians. The 50 or so residents who remain in the building must pick their way around debris and construction work to reach their rooms. Known for sheltering the likes of Bob Dylan and Arthur Miller, the Chelsea now faces a very predictable fate; it is being converted into luxury condos and a posh new hotel.

Before that transformation happens, however, an upcoming auction will provide a chance for anyone nostalgic for the old hotel to take a piece of it home. On May 16, Freeman’s, the Philadelphia-based auction house, will be selling art from the estate of the late Stanley Bard, who co-owned the Chelsea and ran it for more than 40 years. He is largely credited with turning the residential hotel into a wild, wonderful madhouse, thanks to his welcoming spirit and his legendary leniency when the rent was late.

“It’s clear that Stanley had a real affection for artists and a real passion for their life and their work,” said Dunham Townend, the head of modern and contemporary art at Freeman’s. “He created a community at the hotel that allowed these artistic types to flourish.”

“Stanley had a real affection for artists
and a real passion for their life and their work.”
—Dunham Townend, Freeman’s

So it’s no wonder that some of the pieces for sale include special notes to Bard from the artists. Tom Wesselmann’s painting “Face #1,” for instance, one of the most valuable pieces in the sale — it’s expected to bring in $600,000 to $800,000 — is inscribed, “For Stanley with affection.”

Bard inherited his stake in the hotel from his father in 1964 and ran the business until he was forced out in 2007. He died from a stroke in February at the age of 82. 

While he ran the hotel, Bard was said to accept artwork in lieu of rent some months if a tenant couldn’t pay. All of the nearly 100 pieces in the sale come from artists who either lived in the Chelsea or had some other association with it. Among the artists represented are Larry Rivers, Christo, Barry Flanagan and Philip Taaffe.

Alasdair Nichol, vice chairman of Freeman’s, never met Bard but said that since the sale was announced, many of the hotel’s former residents and visitors have approached him, eager to share their memories of the place and its eccentric owner. One visitor recalled waiting in the lobby to meet the artist Donald Baechler while a man dressed like an angel stood there for hours, surrounded by beer cans at his feet.

“It was the last outpost of real bohemianism, I think,” Nichol reflected. “It was just like the freakiest place.”

Among the more famous “freaky” events in the hotel’s history are the fatal stabbing of Sid Vicious’s girlfriend Nancy Spungen in their hotel room’s bathroom (Nichol notes that Freeman’s doesn’t “really want to dwell on that”); the poet Dylan Thomas drinking himself to death; Andy Warhol shooting scenes from his experimental “Chelsea Girls” film; Arthur Clarke writing “2001: A Space Odyssey”; and Robert Mapplethorpe picking up his very first camera.

“It was a real hotbed of inspiration and imagination and creativity,” said Nichol. “And you can’t really say that about the Hilton.”