Photograph by Katherine Bish
Scott Lowenbaum sits at Kaldi’s, sipping a cup of ice water. “I’ve already had my two pots of coffee today,” he says, vibrating with enough nervous energy to make his point. He’s wearing shiny black glasses, black jeans, checkerboard Vans and a tight T-shirt silkscreened with a chicken.
“I just got back from Denver. I have a show at this new gallery called Soke Fine Art. It’s in the Santa Fe Arts District, which is basically just galleries and restaurants. People eat tacos and then, like, go buy paintings. It’s the strangest thing.” Lowenbaum spent most of his time in Denver designing the Soke space. This meant painting and repainting walls, positioning artwork, finessing the lighting and, when he was nagged by a feeling that something was missing, going to Home Depot and buying hundreds of feet of wire to form chickens to hang throughout the gallery. Or, rather, more chickens; almost all of his paintings for this show have chickens in them. “I love their form and color,” he says. “I paint them really flat. I can say a lot about formal relationships, and their faces are so expressive that I can mimic personalities and emotions with them.”
Lowenbaum studies art as an undergraduate at Washington University and, at 23, feels as though he’s setting some sort of endurance record. “Six years is too long,” he says with a grin, “but I’ll be finished in December.” Although the official explanation for Lowenbaum’s extra time in college is his dysgraphia—a learning disorder that limits his ability to write, read and drive a car, among other things—one might wonder whether he was also slightly distracted by his meteoric career as an artist. His paintings are selling for $4,000 to $8,000 and are already sought after by collectors nationwide. He’s getting commissions, too—most recently from a woman on Long Island who wants custom-designed painted glass end tables and another from Le Coq Sportif’s New York showroom. The management there wants a large-scale, multipanel chicken painting.
“Here’s a drawing I’ve been working on for months,” he says, unrolling a long piece of paper from a cardboard tube. Inspired by a recent visit to Las Vegas, it is a jumble of line drawings of casino marquees, architectural details, lights, words, stray lines and, of course, a few chickens. “Some people are flying in from Santa Fe to see if they want to buy it.” This time Lowenbaum gives a full, toothy smile, looking like a young Jeff Goldblum. There’s no arrogance in the smile—it’s pure exuberance. After years of battling a stereotype as a kid with special needs, Scott Lowenbaum has become an artist.
It’s hard to tell whether dysgraphia has hurt or helped him, actually. As a result of having difficulty recognizing letters and numbers, Lowenbaum has developed a near-perfect photographic memory that, combined with obvious raw intelligence, has made him an uncannily astute judge of jewelry, antiques, paintings, coins, furniture and historical artifacts. He can look at any given ring or necklace and tell what it’s made of, where it was made and whether it has value. Often he can even say how much money it would bring in various parts of the country.
Back at his apartment, Lowenbaum pulls out a stack of black boxes, recently removed from a safe-deposit box to which they soon will be returned, and opens them one by one. He reveals a Fabergé moonstone that he bought in Paris four years ago: “These stones come from Sri Lanka, mostly. They don’t have much value in themselves.” He tilts the moonstone, admiring its soft, glowing sheen. “The fact that this is a Fabergé is what gives it value.” He pulls out a loose gem that radiates a yellow light: “This is a brown diamond that actually changes color when the light conditions change.” He holds it up to the sunlight, and it darkens. He pulls it into the shadows, and it becomes gold, then yellow. He hands it to me, and I immediately fumble and lose it in the carpet. He quickly stoops to retrieve it, laughing: “Don’t worry, don’t worry. I drop diamonds more than anyone.”
Next comes a Cartier necklace that Lowenbaum has restored to its original condition. At its center is an ancient Persian lapis stone. He marvels at the care with which its original designer punctured the lapis and inserted a platinum ring to keep the stone from chipping around the hole. Then Lowenbaum pulls out a 14th-century Italian gold ring that he found at a flea market in Rouen a few years ago for 60 euros, or about $75. He was able to date it by the distinctive swallowtail shank that connects the band to the setting. “It’s just a thin piece of gold—can you believe it’s survived this long?” he marvels. Unbeknownst to the flea-market dealer, who thought it was Eastern European, the value of this ring is upwards of $8,000. Although the profit margin is important, given that such transactions have largely funded Lowenbaum’s education, what’s coolest to Lowenbaum are the ring’s workmanship and the fact that it’s a survivor. Had a less knowledgeable buyer scooped it up, it might have been melted down for bullion.
Recently Lowenbaum bought a brooch at an auction in Eureka. It was studded with dozens of small diamonds, but Lowenbaum noticed that something about its overall appearance was off: The color wasn’t right. Intrigued, he bought it, brought it home and took it apart to discover that many of the diamonds were pink—very fashionable right now. The largest weighed in at a third of a carat and had exceptional color and clarity. “Last time I was in New York, I saw one of these on 47th Street—a bit larger at 44 points, but the clarity was not as good,” he recalls. “They wanted $11,000—that price is absolutely fictitious!—but that’s what dealers will do when they sense something is popular.”
Lowenbaum’s approach, by contrast, is to take broken jewelry or unusual stones, restore them and sell them at a reasonable price. He counts on a keen eye and a compassionate heart to make his business profitable. “I’ll go to an estate sale and see 11 rooms full of junk, and then there’s one painting. It’s beautiful. When I go to these sales, I’m trying to determine three things: One, is it beautiful? Two, what is it? And three, where does it need to be? Sometimes things need to be in a different context for their full beauty to emerge.”
He applies the same approach to the paintings he finds. Picking up a small plate of tarnished copper from a nearby shelf, Lowenbaum exclaims, “Do you see this? It’s a painting of a man holding a newspaper!” The piece measures about 3 by 8 inches. “I bought it from the estate of a collector west of St. Louis. The first thing I like about it is its unusual material. Not very many people paint on copper. It’s really, really hard—the paint just glides; it doesn’t stay in one place. The second thing I like about it is the man’s face. It’s so expressive. The third thing is that it was actually painted by Sir Alfred Munnings, the famous English equestrian painter. The paper the man is holding is a racing form. It doesn’t look like much right now, because the surface is coated with cigarette smoke. I need to clean it.”
Another piece of bizarre but historically important artwork hangs in Lowenbaum’s dining room. Tiny cracks web its entire surface, but its lustrous brushstrokes can still be seen clearly. “It’s called ‘Blind Man’s Bluff,’ an early painting by the 19th-century Missouri artist Carl Wimar. He immigrated here from Germany and died at a young age. It used to hang in the Saint Louis Art Museum, but it was rejected because it’s so cracked. What I like about it is Wimar’s obsession with detail. Look at this fabric.” Lowenbaum points to the knickers on the boy in the middle of the painting. “Look at the tiny brushstrokes! You can see this in his later work, though the subject matter changes.”
Lowenbaum has also amassed works by Jean Cocteau, Milton Avery, David Hockney and many other 19th- and 20th-century artists. “I’ve been hoarding them,” he admits, explaining that he has to keep most of them in storage.
The revelations keep coming.
Recently Lowenbaum acquired several pencil drawings from a British dealer, some of them unidentified. He awoke with a start in the middle of the night and went down to storage to pull out a few of them. “This one,” he says, carefully unwrapping a small piece of paper matted on cardboard, “I realized it must be a study for an Antoine Coypel painting I once saw in the Louvre. Look, it’s kind of cartoonish, but it’s definitely the same work. This is a Coypel sketch from the late 17th century.”
Lowenbaum’s keen eye does, from time to time, deceive him. He opens a glass case and pulls out a small cup—black with white figures on it. It is very clean and looks practically new. “I bought this at an estate sale in Maplewood for $5. I brought it home and put it in with my other coffee cups, assuming it was a reproduction and didn’t have much value. I drank coffee out of it every morning until one day an art-historian friend visited and said, ‘Scott, why are you drinking coffee out of Gnathian pottery from 300 B.C.?’ I was, like, what? And I washed it and put it over here next to a Roman silver cup that I also found at a yard sale.”
Later in the afternoon, a visit to the Ivey-Selkirk Auctioneers in Clayton reveals Lowenbaum in his element. He likes to use the side entrance to avoid being seen—lately he’s attracted the attention of other bidders who trust his instincts better than they do their own. “Hi, Terri,” he says to the woman at the reception table.
“Well, hello, Scott. How have you been?”
“I just got back from Denver,” he answers, telling her about his show at Soke. “A couple of collectors are arguing over one of my paintings. I’d like to talk to Mark about putting it in the Americana collection this fall.”
“Do you want me to page Mark to the floor?” she asks quickly.
“That would be great, thanks.”
Once in the gallery, Lowenbaum spots an unwanted follower and turns quickly down a row of large furniture. “Let’s go this way,” he says in a hoarse whisper. Having avoided attention, he moves casually to the jewelry case. “This is what I really have to look at. I have to vet these pieces.”
A woman behind the case says, “Hello, Scott. Want to look at anything?”
“Hi, Maury. This one.” He indicates a sapphire-and-diamond ring that, he suspects, is Georgian, meaning 18th-century English. She plucks the ring from its bed of velvet and hands it to him. Ah, no. Not Georgian after all. “Mid–19th century,” he murmurs. “Look at the grillwork on the back.” The diamonds’ reflection flashes in Lowenbaum’s eyes—40 glittering stones weighing a total of 3.4 carats. “Do you like it?” asks Maury, and Lowenbaum smiles.
“It’s up my alley.”
What does any of this have to do with chickens? “I like lines that you don’t expect,” explains Lowenbaum. Chickens, like ancient Greek pottery, have those in abundance. So do the mountains of Nevada and Colorado, and, if you look closely at the paintings currently installed at Soke, you’ll see the outlines of mountain ranges. Lowenbaum wants to see unexpected lines recontextualized in a way that brings out their beauty. He’s even transfixed, he confesses, by electrocardiogram printouts (his partner, Russ, is a med student), and they will make their way into his paintings soon. “I wonder if he’ll notice,” Lowenbaum says.
Meanwhile, he’s experiencing a shift in his financial livelihood. Lately his paintings have been supporting him much more hand-somely than his profits from jewelry sales have. He’s beginning to think of antiquing as what he does with his free time—and that makes him happy.
“I’m really a painter,” he says.
So the world’s discovering.