The Search for Adney Alden, “The Most Hidden and Exclusive Artist in the World”

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Photographed in his home library, world renown Johns Hopkins University neurosurgeon, adventurer, and rare art collector Paul Birinyi reflects on his remarkable Adney Alden experience and what's next, during an exclusive interview with Michael Mink at Life & News – L&N/AP
Photographed in his home library, world renown Johns Hopkins University neurosurgeon, adventurer, and rare art collector Paul Birinyi reflects on his remarkable Adney Alden experience and what's next, during an exclusive interview with Michael Mink at Life & News – L&N/AP

The Search for Adney Alden,
“The Most Hidden and Exclusive Artist in the World”

Where silence reigns supreme, legends have been born from whispers louder than this

by Michael Mink, Life & News – September 1, 2022

By trade, Paul Birinyi is one of the United States’ most sought out neurosurgeons specializing in minimally invasive spinal surgery, peripheral nerve procedures, and spinal cord stimulation. He has earned degrees and distinction from Johns Hopkins University and other top Medical Schools. More enthralling, Paul is a man of incredibly refined taste. He has realized many of the world’s most exclusive experiences, collected extremely rare wines and extraordinarily fine art, and travels to the corners of the Earth with these aims (not to mention the man is outrageously smooth at simultaneously speaking in metric and imperial terms, as well as knowing the perfect moment and manner to half-quote Shakespeare).

Paul applies the highest caliber of excellence to his profession as well as his avocation for the arts. When we met with Paul, we hoped he might use minimally invasive procedures to help us stimulate our experience of and our ability to feel, art.

In medicine and life, if not through direct experience, we often learn best through case studies.

As such, we had only one request of Paul.

“Please tell us about your favorite artist.”

Paul began by describing how he recently traveled throughout France seeking original art created by Adney Alden, an artist he described as “the most hidden and exclusive artist in the world; an artist operating in purest form.” He first heard about Adney Alden over five years ago through a friend of a friend who deals in exclusive and rare art. Paul’s three year journey to owning his first Adney Alden painting was itself “an unmatched experience.”

He shared so much we weren’t sure whether to ask Paul to author this article or to simply publish the longest quotation we’ve ever had. Our final decision is self evident.

Without further ado, of his Adney Alden journey, Doctor Paul Birinyi elaborates:

Imagine the excitement, walking into the most exclusive dinner you’ve ever been invited to. After signing a packet of nondisclosure agreements, buying a seat for €25,000, and waiting over two years, I was invited to an iconic establishment, much to the likes of the Grand-Hotel Du Cap-FerratMusée d’Orsay, or The Louvre. The exact location, time, and date remain secret. It was the back door to a world of art with multiple barriers to entry, the toughest of which was patience. I even asked my legal team to look over every aspect of my recounting to ensure I honored my NDA’s so I might be invited again.

After enjoying the evening’s entertainment and a 21-course meal from an 11-time Michelin Star chef, doors were opened into an exquisitely large and ornate room with not only originals from artists such as Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, Claude Monet, and Vincent Van Gogh, but also late 20th and early 21st Century Artists such as Mark Rothko, David Hockney, and even a Wizard of Oz themed Banksy on what appeared to be sheet metal. On this Banksy piece, which was a privately held gift from Banksy himself, Dorothy tells Toto something to the effect of “we’re not on canvas anymore”—a delightfully fresh wordplay.

This is what my first full Adney Alden experience encompassed. Being in the company of princes, duchesses, billionaires, and even a two-time Academy Award winning actor, I was the only physician that I knew of in the room. I felt fortunate to be fully alive and present in a moment where I could find myself among all of these incredible original works of art. I was glad to meet several art students who said they didn’t have the means to buy tickets but had won a lottery to attend. It was nice to see money and power was not all that mattered in this backdoor room that symbolized so much of it.

Seeing the students, I was carried back to my younger days. Two paintings in particular had a profound impact on my development as a person and my longtime desire to seek out the world’s most moving art. The first was The Icebergs by Frederic Church. I remember visiting this painting in the Dallas Museum of Art numerous times throughout my childhood and as a young adult. I was amazed by its size at nearly three meters long and fourteen-and-a-half inches shy of two meters in height. While its massive size drew me to the painting, it produced emotions that caused me to lose myself for hours on end within its depths. The water conveyed in three different states required exceptional technique and showed me how a single entity can be viewed in so many different forms. The bidding to explore and traverse the aquamarine ice cave inspired me to live with adventure and discovery. Mixed with the fate of the ship, Church instilled in me a deep and intense drive to do more in life; to persevere always, even in the face of nature’s ability to bring about loss and tragedy. The second painting is Breezing Up by Winslow Homer which I’d also visited many times at the National Gallery of Art in D.C.; a narrative of true Americana highlighting the beauty of timeless moments and the ability for art to be a loyal steward of cultures and time periods.

So there I was, among students, royalty, money, culture, and celebrity. I had come so far and waited so long to see “The Vernissage” of Adney Alden’s work. The most intriguing aspect leading up to the evening was that I still did not know Adney Alden’s name. Allow me to explain. I first heard about Adney Alden’s works from a highly recommended art dealer three years earlier, yet still only knew of Adney Alden as “an unnamed artist whose fresh and unique works, moving between post impressionism, symbolism, and abstract expressionism, have graced the highest echelons of society.” Despite asking for more information—to see an original, a print, or even a picture of his work—for the first year I was told to “just wait” and for the next two years, I was told to “just wait to see The Vernissage.” The audacity and ability of the artist to successfully stay so hidden might have turned many away, but they intrigued me all the more, which is why I said patience was the toughest price to pay.

Back to the evening at hand, I had no idea where and how The Vernissage would appear. Was it already all around me? I looked to all areas of the room for clues, even up at the ceiling’s carvings and windows to partial views of the night above!

Fifteen minutes after we walked in, the sound of pulleys drew everyone’s gaze toward the far side of the room. Floor to ceiling curtains were being drawn back, revealing not just a wall as one would expect, but an opening to a well-lit alcove which was cordoned off with velvet rope, additional curtains, and two more security guards dressed all in black. Could this be the highly anticipated vernissage? Of the roughly one hundred people in the room, a third of us immediately started to make our way to the alcove. The excitement was palpable. If the people in the room had been any less practiced in the art of elegance and self restraint, I am sure someone would have broken into a dead sprint to get there first. I certainly wanted to.

The small crowd naturally morphed into a poorly formed line like ones you see at a wedding to congratulate the bride and groom. Like me, several people standing in wait said they came specifically to see “his work.” Two men and one woman, who seemed like old friends and to whom everyone lent importance, said they knew the unnamed artist and had his works hanging up in places they were all familiar with—what I assumed were some of their various European estates. And though the three had their phones out, sharing various pieces of rare art they’d acquired, none had any pictures of his work. When I inquired with the woman’s assistant about this peculiarity, I was told that photos of the unnamed artist’s works were discouraged by the artist himself and as such, photos of his work simply did not exist. What’s more, sharing any photos of these works with others would have been seen as “discourteous to all involved.” The artist’s desire was that the unsigned art he created be appreciated in-person only, and that he preferred to remain known as an “unnamed artist.”

But how would people find his work if he had no name? How would anyone reach him? It occurred to me either no one knew his name or anyone who knew it, knew not to share it. Three photos-prohibited signs and the security guards’ focus on all of us made it clear no one would be asking for any photo ops. The conversations we had with each other about the other art in the room—if one can call those great works “other”—helped time pass as unevenly as the line for the vernissage had formed.

Suddenly, I was next to step through the second set of curtains. I glanced to my left and right as if expecting someone to jump in front of me. Seeing a clear path ahead, I stepped forward.

As I walked beyond the first curtain, a standalone sign read “VERNISSAGE, ADNEY ALDEN.” It was the first time I saw his name. I would find out later, it was the first time anyone had publicly read his name. Everyone was surprised to see it. How would he stay hidden now?

I turned the tight corner and came into another opening where I saw the two Adney Aldens on display with name placards beneath each. Despite the pronounced security cameras in the alcove reminding the observer to keep anything with a camera tucked away, no one else was there, lending to a moment where I could be alone with the paintings. They immediately took me in and there I stood, absorbing one at a time, then both. Although I wished to have as many hours as I spent with The Icebergs, the one on one feeling with each of the Adney Alden paintings powerfully evoked many different yet equally wholehearted feelings and thoughts. Both paintings gave me the indescribable feeling of familiarity and connectedness, as if experiencing a brief yet deeply eternal connection by looking into the eyes of a loved one.

As I left the alcove from the exit side, there was a silent auction table for both paintings where people were already placing their bids in envelopes, after which an attendant sealed and placed the envelopes into a box. A unique way to collect silent auction bids, I thought. Half an hour later, I came back to submit my bid. $350,000 was what I had set aside for a potential purchase so I bid €320,000 for one of the paintings. I watched the attendant seal my bid with a wet sponge and slip it into the box. I hoped against odds that it would work out. So many others clearly loved these paintings and had far deeper pockets to bid so much more. By evening’s end, I heard some people say they wrote bids in the millions.

When the gallery closed and we all went about our different ways for the night, I heard myself thinking “parting is such sweet sorrow, that I shall say goodnight till… well until next time whenever that is…” It was such a beautiful evening I believe we all felt like we’d experienced something as different as it was real. In a way, it was bittersweet, much more sweet than bitter, to know there would be no photographs to remember it by. I was only saddened by the fact that I was certainly outbid and some lucky royal; first, second, or even third in line of succession, was already hanging up Adney Alden’s paintings in whichever castle they were staying in that season.

I kicked off my shoes and went to sleep with my tux still on that night. I was tired, happy, and overwhelmed. I needed to sleep before catching my flight back home in the morning.

The phone rang “Doctor Birinyi, this is your 7am wakeup call, would you like your breakfast brought to you now?” I said yes. I picked up my cell phone and saw three text messages: two from back home and one from an odd phone number that said “You are the winning bid for…” and I opened it with disbelief.

I had won the Adney Alden and in that moment I instinctively wished I had bid on both paintings, but then quickly focused on doing whatever I needed to ensure my eyes were not tricking me and to physically secure the painting. 

It turned out the reason they sealed the envelopes and placed them in boxes was because Mr. Alden wanted the auctioneers to draw the winning bid, just as they had drawn to pick which students would be attending the event at no cost. They said it’s not how he always does it, but he wanted it done this way, this time.

Ultimately, the painting was shipped to my home along with provenance certification. There was also a hand written note saying “Please do not photograph or share photographs of this painting with anyone else. It is meant to be enjoyed in person. Believe in Art, Yours Very Sincerely, Adney Alden.”

A few years have passed since that evening. Five times, through the dealer who originally introduced his work to me, I’ve been offered between $1,250,000 and $1,700,000 for my Adney Alden. Not only have I held onto my Adney Alden painting, I’ve asked the art dealer if any of the Adney Alden owners he knew of would be interested in selling, and he has consistently replied with a firm yet polite “I’m sorry, no.”

I reached out to Mr. Alden through multiple email addresses I found on his website. I’ve emailed him to thank him and with hopes of purchasing another painting. I’ve reached out to the event organizer. I haven’t heard back from Mr. Alden, but the event organizer got back to me with a familiar message. “Thank you for your inquiry and your patience. We hope to invite you to the next Adney Alden Vernissage.”

In July of this year, I traveled to France on a hunch that I might be able to purchase another Adney Alden.  Although I spent time at Van Gogh’s hangout in Montmartre, traveled and biked through much of France, and ultimately brought home a case of La Tâche, I’ve thus far failed to find my way into another Adney Alden work of art.

Hoping to understand what Adney Alden would want, and believing patience and perseverance to be two of the remaining keys, I have turned my focus toward finding other Adney Alden owners. My hope is to bring our original Adney Alden paintings on private tours around the world so they may be enjoyed by more people who believe in art, in person.