HW UPDATE: The owners of a long-hidden painting of Michael Jackson, reputed to be the only portrait he ever posed for, say they are trying to sell it amid the renewed interest after his death. The painting, last sold in 1990 for $2.1 million, was brought out of storage at New Jersey warehouse recently and put on display in a Harlem car showroom.
The 50-by-40-inch painting, called “The Book,” was done in 1990 by an Australian artist, Brett-Livingstone Strong, who was a close friend of Mr. Jackson and shared his taste for slightly fantastical style of life and dress.
The portrait depicts Mr. Jackson dressed in red velvet holding a journal of thoughts and sketches. “We called it, ‘The Book,’” Mr. Strong said. ‘What are you going to put in ‘The Book’ today, Michael?’” The backdrop is Neverland, with an image of Tinkerbell. The painting has touches of Vermeer, as that was one of Mr. Jackson’s favorite painters, Mr. Strong said.
The painting is owned by two toy inventors, Marty Abrams and John Gentilly, who received the painting in 1992 from a Japanese businessman who had bought it to make good on a debt he owed the inventors.
“If someone came with a legitimate offer, I’d probably sell it,” said Mr. Abrams, who lives in Great Neck. He tried selling it when he first took possession of it in 1992, but couldn’t find any good offers.
“I couldn’t get anyone at that time interested in the painting,” said Mr. Abrams. “I put it in storage for 17 years, and it has been there for 17 years.”
They never displayed it in their own homes. “It’s so expensive that the insurance was too expensive,” Mr. Abrams said. “I have prints for $600. I might have a sketch for $1,000. But to put a $2 million painting in the middle of all that would be a little bit overwhelming.”
They were inspired to bring the painting out of storage after Mr. Jackson’s death in June, in part because Mr. Abrams saw a news story about a sketch portrait of Michael Jackson by Andy Warhol that was being put up for auction.
Mr. Strong and Mr. Jackson formed an art business partnership, the Jackson-Strong Alliance, around 1989 and 1990 to display their art work, which included this portrait. The two were brainstorming how to raise money for charity when Mr. Strong mentioned that a Japanese businessman, Hiromichi Saeki, had offered millions of dollars for a portrait of Mr. Jackson.
Mr. Jackson said he would sit for it if the buyer agreed to pay a world record — ultimately $2.1 million, then reported as the highest amount ever paid for a living person. “Sometime later he told me he would have made $5 million for it,” Mr. Strong said. The businessman later went bankrupt and gave the painting to Mr. Abrams.
Mr. Strong still has a number of drawings done by Mr. Jackson as part of the partnership. “These drawings are really interesting. Some of the are really fantastic. They have been in a drawer for 17 years.” He is hoping to hold an exhibit of the art.
A limited, autographed set of lithographs was created based on “The Book.” Around 375 of them were numbered and some have made their way onto eBay and Craigslist.
The owners have received calls from as far away as Dubai after Mr. Jackson’s death from people who knew they owned the painting. “Up to this point we’ve been very skittish,” Mr. Abrams said. They have reached out to Phillips De Pury auction house to get an assessment. “I am not an art expert. I don’t understand the art market,” he said. “We have no idea what it’s worth. Is it worth $1 million? Is it worth $10 million?”
Currently, the painting is being displayed at the Dancy-Power Automotive at Lenox Avenue and West 129th in Harlem, chosen in part because it is owned by a friend of Mr. Abrams and also because it is near the Apollo Theater, where the Jackson 5 won an amateur night competition in 1967.
It hasn’t drawn huge crowds, Mr. Abrams said, in part because “we don’t put a big sign in the window, ‘Michael Jackson Painting Here.’”