In late July, artist Javier Ramirez went to a thrift store in Reseda and spotted a somewhat surreal painting. The image of a little girl wearing what appeared to be a wrestling mask appealed to him so much he snapped a picture of it with his phone. But he didn't buy the painting, even though it was priced at just $4.99.
What Ramirez didn't know was that "Luchadora," as the piece is called, is from the "Segundas" series of paintings created as part of a conceptual art project by Lorenzo Hurtado Segovia.
The Los Angeles artist's work has appeared in galleries and museums all over California and beyond, but for the "Segundas" series, Hurtado makes art pieces inspired by thrift-store paintings — then he turns around and donates the paintings right back to random thrift stores to be sold for whatever the floor manager thinks it might draw. (Hurtado sells photographs of the paintings through his downtown gallery CB1, but never the paintings themselves.)
After I wrote about Hurtado's thrift store series, Ramirez recognized the painting he'd seen in the Reseda thrift shop as one of the "Segundas" pieces.
He returned to the thrift store, this time with the intention of buying the painting, but it had been already sold. He nonetheless sent Hurtado the photo he'd snapped via Instagram.
"I took the pic on July 30," Ramirez wrote. "Thought it was cool. Gotta learn to trust my thrift store intuition a bit harder. Haha. Was very close to buying it that day."
"Luchadora" was floating around out there, in the hands of a lucky unknown buyer.
That unknown buyer reached out to me on Monday.
Sean Riley lives in L.A. and works at the Recording Academy, which administers the Grammys and much more. In his spare time he likes to dig around thrift stores. And he picked up Hurtado's piece — for $4.99 — about a month and a half ago at the Reseda shop. Since then, it has hung in his office in Santa Monica.
"I liked it immediately," he told me via email. "It jumped out at me from the rear of the store. I nearly gave up on getting it because it took forever for the staff at the store to find a ladder to get the picture down from the wall and I had my three-year-old daughter with me."
He only learned of the painting's history when a colleague emailed him a link to the Times story, which included a reproduction of "Luchadora," painted in 2014 after Hurtado was inspired by a hand-drawn portrait of a little girl.
Hurtado says the experience of having one of his works reemerge is "unreal." The artist has made roughly two dozen "Segundas" (Seconds) over the past decade, and wasn't aware of the fate of any of his works.
"I had only imagined the possibilities," he says. "So to see something concrete, it's quite incredible. And the path is so amazing."
Part of Hurtado's long-running "Segundas" experiment is toying with the mechanisms of the art market — his donated original paintings can end up in the hands of a random buyer like Riley, or, for all he knows, in the garbage.
So he was thrilled to find out that someone bought the work simply because he enjoyed it.
"Someone clicked with it and liked it enough and wanted it enough," he says. "He considered it worthy — and not just because it hung in a gallery."
Now that the secret of the "Segundas" is out, Hurtado says he is going to take a break from making further donations to thrift stores. The whole intent of the project is to subvert art market hysteria — not drive it. But he will probably continue to make the works.
"I need to think about how I move forward," he says. "The question that comes up now is of provenance. The piece was bought for $4.99, but what is its value now? How much would it be? And now that we have the original, what happens to the reproductions? I'm still processing everything."
Riley, for one, says that the story behind the picture doesn't change his view of it.
"But many people seem to think it validates both my taste and my thrift store habit," he states. "Thrift stores are like the lottery: There's always the chance you'll find something amazing."
Lorenzo Hurtado Segovia's "Segundas" are on view through Sept. 19. at CB1 Gallery, 1923 S. Santa Fe Ave., Los Angeles, cb1gallery.com.
Find me on Twitter @cmonstah.