The Death and Life of Colin Whitehead #2

Barely had the mourners returned from Whitehead’s funeral than rumours began to spread that his death had been faked. Some even speculated that the whole episode had been nothing less than a gigantic publicity stunt organised by Whitehead as part of some sort of posthumous death sculpture. That’s when stories began to circle of brand new Whiteheads being on the market.

An eye from an unattributable source was reportedly seen on Ebay before being hastily withdrawn. A gallery owner talked of being approached by a mysterious dealer with tales of new, previously unseen Whiteheads – at a price.

These stories took on a more shockingly concrete form when the New York police – investigating a large investment fraud – raided a prominent hedge fund manager’s East Side apartment. The private collection of stolen contemporary artworks they would discover there would kick start a chain of events that would ultimately shock the art world to its core.

Amongst the Hirsts and the Emins and the Koons was an eye in a sealed formaldehyde jar. The label on the jar attributed the eye to Colin Whitehead.

It had to be a fake. Both of Whitehead’s eyes were on display in public galleries in Paris and Los Angeles; in what Whitehead had once described as his ‘Transatlantic Stereo Piece’. DNA tests in Paris and LA showed beyond doubt that they were genuine and had both belonged at one time or another to Colin Whitehead.

The New York police felt obliged to run the eye through DNA analysis, anyway. To their amazement and surprise the data revealed the third eye also belonged to Whitehead. The investigation now shifted from a fraud case to a possible homicide investigation as the NYPD sought to confirm that all of Whitehead’s living relatives were safe and physically unharmed.

Meanwhile, the hedge fund manager confessed to having bought the eye from an art dealer he’d met at a party. The art dealer had called himself Fabio Amodio and had boasted of access to brand new Whitehead art.

Further investigation, backed up by facial recognition analysis of CCTV footage from the party, revealed Amodio to be an associate Connecticut gang member who’s real name was Walter Trustman.

Trustman was tracked down to a rented villa in Miami. His subsequent interrogation led police to an isolated farmhouse in Simi Valley. Outbuildings on the farm were found to conceal an illicit laboratory for cloning human DNA. Behind the laboratory, in a nearby field, were discovered the remains of thirty-five human infants in shallow graves. All of them had been killed by lethal injection. All of them had had their eyes surgically removed. Analysis confirmed their DNA to be that of the late Colin Whitehead.

The police had stumbled upon one of the most audacious and macabre art forgeries of all time. Further investigations showed that Trustman and his associates had acquired Whitehead’s DNA from a sample of hair stolen by a mortuary attendant. From this DNA, they had cloned children to harvest their eyes; and they had sold those eyes on to collectors as original works of art.

And then another discovery was made at the farmhouse. Not all the babies were dead. In a sealed nutrient tank, one of them still lived.

The media was ablaze with pictures of dead eyeless babies and stories of the lone survivor who had narrowly avoided their fate. The world gasped in shocked wonder. Galleries and collectors all over the world looked in panic to the authenticity of their own Whiteheads.

Six months later the clone-child was birthed in a laboratory in Pasadena. He was secretly put up for adoption by a family from Inglewood California.

The Kurnitz’s were a loving couple – no longer in the first flush of youth – who’d been trying for a child for many years without success. Their religious beliefs prevented them from using technologies that would manipulate human embryos. So, in desperation, they had turned to a government agency for adoption.

If they’d been told their adoptive child was a clone they would almost certainly have rejected it. But they weren’t told. No one was told. The identity of the child’s biological clone-father was kept a secret from all but a handful of law enforcement officers and social workers. The Kurnitz’s ignorance protected them and the boy from the knowledge of who and what he really was.

They called him Henry. And they loved him like he was their own. His days were filled with all the ordinary things of a normal boy’s childhood -fishing in the creek, pitching on the back lot, homework, school, summer camp, church on Sundays.

But it couldn’t last.

A police officer who’d been present at the farmhouse in Simi and was resentful at having his pension cut, sold his story to the press. Henry was 17 when the news broke. And it turned his world upside down.

‘Colin Whitehead eye fraud survivor found.’ ‘Colin Whitehead clone living in California.’ ‘Art clone boy lives!’ rang the headlines.

No one was more shocked than the Kurnitz’s themselves. To discover who and what their son was, in such a public way, was almost more than they could bear. They petitioned their congressman. They hired lawyers with a view to suing the government. In their darkest hour they even had thoughts of disowning the boy and throwing him out.

TV and Youtube crews followed the family wherever they went. Paparazzi hounded Henry’s every move. A Mexican cable TV station stole some of his schoolwork and the New York Times had his drawings analysed for signs of his father’s genius.

A prominent NY art critic described Henry as “a limited edition Colin Whitehead kinetic print”.

The family moved away from Inglewood. But the media soon caught up with them. The Kurnitz’s considered changing their name and even emigrating.

But the press were as nothing compared to the stalkers. ‘Whiteheads’, fanatical art fans who were convinced Henry was a real work of art created by their idol. The more extreme of their number believed he was the ultimate expression of Whitehead’s oeuvre as ordained by Whitehead himself from beyond the grave in league with God – and/or Satan. They stood outside the Kurnitz’s home at all hours in all weathers in silent vigil, meditation and prayer.

It didn’t help that the boy looked so very much like his father. When he had his appendix removed, a gallery in Beijing tried to buy it. A Los Angeles art dealer offered his parents an undisclosed sum for his old milk teeth.

Offers started to come in from Wall Street marketing agencies. The family was tempted. They needed the money. Protecting yourself from the art world and the press doesn’t come cheap.

Reluctantly, the Kurnitz’s signed Henry up for a series of adverts for a company that produced 3D printers. The campaign – ‘Take it from a copy who knows, these copies are great!’- was a major success.

More offers came in: ads for cola, chocolate, cars, guns and fridges. He was offered a regular spot as a contestant in a game show. Then he got a stint in a reality TV series that was set on a life raft in the middle of the Pacific, which he won.

It was only a matter of time before Hollywood came calling. At first in supporting roles, then meatier parts, until he was offered the part that would turn him into a star, the part you could almost say he had been born for: the lead role in a biopic of his clone-father’s life.

Henry had been understandably curious about Colin Whitehead ever since he’d found out his true origins. What illegally cloned survivor of a major art fraud wouldn’t be? But now that he was researching his father for a film that would be seen by millions, he set about it with renewed vigour. He swore to find out everything he could about the man who had changed art and stamped it with his own unique sensibility – and inadvertently given him life.

He read all he could get his hands on: reference books, contemporary journalism, monographs, art criticisms, medical records, even the police report from the Simi valley affair. He watched as much documentary footage as he could find. Hour upon hour of old video. He travelled the globe to see as many of his father’s works as possible.

And the more he looked, the more he saw, the more he read, the more he heard, the more he wanted to know. The more he needed to know.

Who was this Colin Whitehead who had created him? Not just the artist, but the man? Who was this stranger he was beginning to feel increasingly – and intimately – bound up with?

He turned to Whitehead’s friends, to his colleagues and nurses – those who would speak to him, anyhow.

He wrote to Lucja Kot in Poland – who never replied but later dismissed him as a freak in the press. He tried to see his paternal grandparents but they would have nothing to do with him. He even went to see Walter Trustman in prison and had asked him “Why me?”

Over time he distanced himself from the Kurnitz’s. They were heart-broken. To lose their only son to an obsession such as Colin Whitehead, was a blow that even their religion could not help them with.

The film – ‘Life of a Thousand Cuts’ – was a big hit. The critics raved. They noted that Henry had an almost instinctive ability to portray his father, “to inhabit him” as one reviewer had put it. When asked on a late night chat show just how he’d managed to get under Whitehead’s skin so unerringly, he’d answered: “It’s all in the DNA.” And the audience had just loved him for it.

Later that year, he won the Oscar. In his acceptance speech he thanked his father for giving him his life and for making the award possible. The Kurnitz’s watched the whole thing on television, and waited in vain for any mention of their own small role in his success.

More starring roles followed and more success: ‘Pain and Death’, ‘Scourged Flesh’ and ‘The Passion of Christ 3D’.

By now he was twenty-seven years old. Just a year short of his father’s age at death. His life, like his father’s before him, had become a roller coaster of parties, film premieres, A-list friends and beautiful women.

But no matter how many high-profile events he attended or supermodels he dated, nothing could ever truly feed the emptiness that gnawed away inside him.

If anything his obsession with Colin Whitehead had grown deeper. Hardly a day passed without him searching out some new obscure piece of information or finding a previously unpublished quote or a new film clip.

It is even said that he consulted a clairvoyant in a fruitless attempt to make contact with the father who had never conceived him.

It was around this time that the Chinese property developer, who had bought ‘Hand’ for £20 million, died in a plane crash. His widow, who had never really appreciated her late husband’s taste in art – or girlfriends – used the opportunity to sell his entire collection.

Henry Kurnitz took the news as an omen. His father’s work came on the market so very, very rarely. He knew he had to have it.

He liquidated most of his assets and built up a fighting fund. He sold his cars, his yacht, and his portfolio of luxury apartments. It was said that he even sold his clothes.

There are those who claim he borrowed heavily from his Hollywood friends. Others say he sold vials of his blood. There are still others who claim he came to a private arrangement with the widow and that the auction was rigged.

Whatever the truth, whatever the myths, after twenty minutes of fierce bidding, in the blinding glare of the media’s eye, with all the world’s biggest collectors and institutions fighting him, Colin Whitehead’s first great ground-breaking masterpiece was sold to his clone-son for $78 million.

Henry Kurnitz, the boy who’d been cloned as part of a cruel con trick, the boy who’d grown to be a man and who’d got under the skin of his absent dead father to win fame and fortune had done it. He took the piece home and displayed it proudly in the library of his house in the Hamptons.

Then he poured himself a drink and spent the rest of the day in mute contemplation as he played with the idea of breaking the seal on the glass jar and stroking his father’s hand.

Picture source: Wolfgang Moroder.