The story of obscure Armenian-American artist Arthur Pinajian stands out as one of those many cases, like Vincent Van Gogh, who became posthumously (re)discovered. He was a secret artist who painted for himself for years, and no one seemed to have noticed it.
Ashod (Arthur) Pinajian was born on March 28, 1914 in Union City, New Jersey, in a family of workers. He was a precocious youngster who excelled in school and skipped grades. At the same time, he showed excellent skills in drawing. He graduated in 1930, during the Great Depression, and took a clerical job to support his family, since his father was out of a job. His mother passed away two years later, and he moved his father and sister to Long Island.
Pinajian started drawing comic strips, and he was hired as a freelance cartoonist by Lud Shabazian, a reporter-illustrator at the New York Daily News. He took some lessons at the Art Students League and became a pioneer in comic book creation, being active from the late 1930s throughout the 1950. He worked on many titles and features of Centaur Publications in the 1930s, including “Captain Juan,” “Egbert the Great,” and “Tim Roberts,” and subsequently joined Funnies, Inc. He also drew characters for Fiction House, Fox Comics, Lev Gleason Publications, and Timely Comics. Pinajian created the characters Madame Fatal and the Invisible Hood (also known as Hooded Justice and Invisible Justice) for Quality Comics, and worked on Western stories for Atlas/Marvel in the 1950s.
He served in the U.S. Army in World War II and earned the Bronze Star Medal for valor. Thanks to the G.I. Bill, he was able to take lessons at the Art Students League and was drawn to the works of old and modern art masters, and endlessly roamed through the Manhattan museums and art galleries.
For the last 26 years of his life, Pinajian devoted his life completely to art, living in a tiny room. No articles were written about him; one couple at the opening reception of his exhibition in March 2003 related how they had purchased a figurative painting many years ago from the artist for a mere $100, “so that Pinajian could have money to purchase paint for his work.” He struggled financially and relied on his secretary sister, Armen, for support. The siblings lived together most of their lives and neither married.
When Pinajian passed away on August 18, 1999, his art, which had been stored in his garage, was left to be destroyed at his request. His wishes were ignored, and they remained gathering dust and mold. Two years after the death of his sister (2005), his artistic works would see the light of day. Investors Thomas Schultz and Larry Joseph purchased the ramshackle bungalow in Bellport, New York in 2007, hoping to renovate it. The majority of Pinajian’s work was found stacked up in the one-car garage and attic of the property. Along with the art were found his journals, many letters, and sketch books that spanned the 50 years of his creative life.
The buyers paid an extra $2,500 for the art collection and set about restoring it. The pieces included abstract expressionist paintings, landscapes, sketches from the Second World War, illustrations for 1930s comic books, and images from the 1960 Woodstock artist colonies. In all, there were more than 3,000 paintings, drawings and illustrations.
At the first gallery exhibit in March 2013, one painting sold for $100,000, the highest price paid for one of Pinajian's paintings so far. Schultz is the full-time registrar, while Falk, the director of exhibitions, has valued the collection at around 30 million dollars.