In 2004, on a bike ride through Kutztown, Pennsylvania, Scott and Angela Garner came across their dream home: a brick-built Victorian house with shutters on the windows and a wide porch at the front.
Inside was something completely unexpected. On the wall of a small downstairs room was a five-inch drawing just above the light switch. It was Radiant Baby, one of the most recognisable images of the wildly successful 1980s pop artist and activist Keith Haring, drawn in gold on a vibrant blue background in his childhood bedroom.
The woman who had bought the house from the Haring family – and who later sold it to the Garners – had almost painted over the image. But at the last minute, when changing the room’s decor from blue to pale yellow, she kept Radiant Baby.
“It was hidden in this house all these years, completely unknown,” said Christine Oaklander, an art historian.
Next month, the image – now cut from the wall in a panel that includes the light switch – will be auctioned. A pre-sale price estimate has not been released by the New Jersey auctioneers Rago/Wright, but the record achieved for a Haring artwork – for the 1982 painting Untitled – is $6.5m, although the sale resulted in a lawsuit after the buyer defaulted.
“Radiant Baby is Haring’s tag, his signature,” said Oaklander. “What makes this so wonderful is that there is no doubt of its authenticity. It’s unusual because it’s drawn in gold, and Haring mostly drew in white on black, or black on whatever the substrate was. I don’t want to say it’s unique, but it is rare.”
The image is thought to date from the early 1980s, drawn on a visit to his family after the artist had moved to New York, where he rapidly found a following and financial success.
In New York, Haring became involved in an alternative art community which was based in the city’s streets and subways rather than galleries and museums. He became friends with Jean-Michel Basquiat and Kenny Scharf and began drawing on unused advertising panels in the city’s subway stations, sometimes creating 40 images a day. The subway became a “laboratory” for experimentation, he said.
Haring won international recognition and his work featured in more than 100 exhibitions. He produced more than 50 public artworks around the world, many with social messages, but he also undertook commercially lucrative work, developing watch designs for Swatch and an advertising campaign for Absolut Vodka.
In 1986, he opened Pop Shop in Soho, selling merchandise bearing his images. He said the intention was to allow people access to his work at low costs, but many in the art world criticised the enterprise.
Two years later, Haring was diagnosed with Aids and he set up the Keith Haring Foundation to provide funding to Aids organisations and other social causes. He died in 1990 at the age of 31.
“He was a courageous and remarkable man,” said Oaklander. “He was open about having Aids at a time of stigma. He raised money for his foundation to support the causes he believed in. He wanted to help humanity.”
When the Garners knocked on the door of the former Haring family home in 2004 to express an interest in buying it, the then owner mentioned in passing that there was a drawing in one room thought to be drawn by Keith Haring.
“Our hearts started to beat really fast,” said Angela Garner, a social worker. “We were blown away that a world famous artist had lived in the house.”
The couple invited Allen Haring, Keith’s father, who still lived in Kutztown, to the house. He confirmed his son drew the image and signed a letter of authenticity.
The Garners protected the drawing with a glass panel and treasured it for 18 years. “It’s been part of our family for so long, but we always thought we might part with it,” said Scott Garner, a limousine chauffeur. “There’s not a lot of foot traffic that goes through our house.”
Angela Garner said: “We feel it belongs in a museum. It tells a story, it’s part of Keith Haring’s childhood.” The proceeds of the sale will help pay for their son’s college costs.
The couple said it was a sad moment when they removed the section of wall and drove it to the auction house. “But it’s encouraging to think that one day we might be able to see it in New York or Paris or Japan,” said Scott Garner.