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How Andrew Wyeth's 'Helga' went viral

January 16, 2009 |  8:00 am

Time_magazineAndrew Wyeth, 91, died in his sleep this morning. The Realist painter's 1948 "Christina's World" is an icon of Americana, one of the most popular pictures in the Museum of Modern Art's collection.

In the aftermath of World War II, as U.S. soldiers returned home from theaters in Europe and the Pacific, and American women returned to the hearth after taking a powerful role in operating the daily machinery of American life, the painting pictured a nostalgic yearning for a return to what had been normalcy: A young woman, sprawled in the grass, reaches out toward a distant farmhouse on the far horizon.

Coincidentally, Leonard E.B. Andrews also died the other day. The name might not ring a bell, unless you happened to subscribe to one of his 1980s newsletters, which included such memorable titles as “The National Bankruptcy Report” and “The Swine Flu Claim and Litigation Reporter.” Or, unless you remember Helga.

The New York Times obit describes Andrews, 83, as the man “who rocked the art world when he bought 240 previously unknown Andrew Wyeth works depicting a mysterious, sometimes nude woman known as Helga. ... Mr. Wyeth had kept the Helga pictures secret from his wife of 46 years, Betsy. When Art & Antiques magazine disclosed their existence, and reported that Mrs. Wyeth said the works represented 'love,' the pictures made a splash.”

Newsweek and Time both put the vaguely sordid tale on their covers. That was the pre-Internet equivalent of a scandal going viral.

But I remember the tabloid story somewhat differently. I remember Andrews as a savvy participant in one of the great media hoaxes about art in the last quarter-century. He “rocked” the art world the way one rocks the cradle of a near-helpless infant.

The pseudo-scandal -- and it was pseudo -- was ginned up by ...

...Art & Antiques magazine, which was peddling an “exclusive" shocker about Wyeth in its September 1986 issue, by way of summer press releases sent to numerous news outlets. (I got one.) No one bit -- except the two news weeklies. Apparently they were starved for something, anything in the way of  beach-reading during the dog days of August. That's the silly season -- or, as White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card famously put it in 2003, “From a marketing point of view, you don't introduce new products in August.” Andrew_wyeth

Within days, newspapers and television broadcasts from coast to coast were reporting on an artist who is supposedly a national treasure who may or may not have been sleeping with his model who was a woman who was completely unknown to the national treasure's wife who was also his business manager but who was unaware that her husband/client had for 15 years been painting pictures of her sister's housekeeper. Or something like that.

Long after the flap died down, facts slowly began to emerge.

Wyeth (pictured) and his wife had actually approached Andrews about buying the cache of works, which cast a certain doubt on the story's scandalous intimations of an adulterous affair. Andrews and Wyeth were neighbors and social acquaintances. Indeed, several of the Helga paintings had been shown in exhibitions over the years, putting the lie to their being a “secret.” And a sober story about the sale had long since hit the news -- in the April 23 issue of the Delaware County Daily Times, published not far from Andrews' and Wyeth's Pennsylvania homes.

Wyeth had been the subject of a fawning Art & Antiques profile a year before. A friend of his brought the new “secret scandal” story to the magazine -- just days after Andrews bought the paintings. And, perhaps most revealingly, Andrews hadn't just bought the paintings and drawings from Wyeth. A knowledgeable publisher who had gotten rich off those pricey executive newsletters, he also bought the copyright to the images.

That gave the collector, not the artist, a cut on every note card, calendar or other Helga reproduction sold.

Helga And soon there were lots of reproductions to sell, thanks to the priceless publicity Time and Newsweek provided. (A missed red flag: Neither magazine's staff art critic wrote the story.) Thanks were also due to Washington's National Gallery of Art, which almost never does solo shows of living artists, but jumped right on it. The NGA foolishly organized an exhibition and tour of Andrews' supposedly secret collection of scandalous Helga material -- it came to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1988 -- complete with busy gift shop.

The exhibition catalog featured all those reproductions on which Andrews held the copyright. It also had documentary pictures shot by the Wyeth friend who brought the story to Art & Antiques. And, it included an essay by the collector, titled -- hold your breath -- “A National Treasure.”

Ten short months after the tour ended, Andrews sold “the national treasure” to an unidentified Japanese buyer, for $40 million to $50 million. With the help of a tax-exempt array of nonprofit art museums, the collector's three-year profit on the phony art-and-sex scandal has been estimated in excess of 600%.

So, the next time your local art museum has the bright idea to show a private collector's horde of paintings, remember Helga. Or, better yet, remember “The Swine Flu Claim and Litigation Reporter.”

--Christopher Knight

Credit: Time magazine; Wyeth Study Center/photo: ©Victoria Wyeth and  "Crown of Flowers 1974," AP Photo/Adelson

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