Now more than ever, New York City is home to thousands of people who spend their days and nights ferrying others from point A to point B. In a basic sense, Ronny Sunshine was one of those individuals for the better part of two decades. Three things set Sunshine apart however: his ride (a ’49 Cadillac stretch hearse), his clientele (New York’s artistic elite), and his preferred compensation scheme (artwork, autographs, and absolutely no money). Now Ronny Sunshine is auctioning off some of the crown jewels of his expansive collection of original artworks, doodles and memorabilia gifted to him directly from the likes of Andy Warhol, the Grateful Dead and Keith Haring.
Sunshine recounted how he came to own one of the items up for sale: an original Jean-Michel Basquiat painting depicting an Indian head nickel and Basquiat’s signature crown. “On August 27, 1984, I was outside the Hard Rock Café on W. 57th St. and ran into my good friend Andy Warhol and offered him a ride in my limo with him, Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat, and handed Warhol a clipboard to draw on. He drew me a dollar sign and then Haring drew a portrait of me and my limo as a flying space shuttle/flying penis.” After dropping off Warhol on the Upper East Side, the group made its way downtown to Haring’s studio on Hester Street. There, Sunshine says, “Basquiat gave me the Indian Head Nickel painting with a hole in it. We partied for a couple of hours at the studio then I took the artwork home with me later that night.” The painting is debuting at $75,000 in “very good” condition, original hole notwithstanding.
Jean-Michel Basquiat’s c. 1984 “Indian Head Nickel.” Image courtesy Gotta Have Rock n Roll
Among the other items available in the online auction is a twice-signed original painting from Keith Haring. The 28 x 22” oil-on-canvas depicts Haring’s signature featureless figures and barking dogs carousing atop a cherry red skateboard. Ronny Sunshine’s collection is not mainly comprised of the type of instantly recognizable pieces from the likes of Basquiat and Haring (though there certainly are those). Sunshine’s go-to means of making his “chauffeur to the stars” role worth his while was a simple guestbook, in which he urged artists, musicians, glitterati-types alike to try their hand at some form of artwork. By forcing some of his passengers out of their elements, he was able to garner some truly unique output from artists who might never have otherwise put pen to paper with a drawing in mind.
Images courtesy Ronny Sunshine
And then there’s the selfies. After Sunshine sold the iconic stretch hearse in the early 90’s, he turned his focus to photography. Sometime since picking up the camera, he claims with varying degrees of seriousness to have invented the navel-gazing form of photography that’s so omnipresent today. Whether or not that’s true, he has certainly made excellent use of it, cramming his face into frame with everyone from rock and roll icons to Pope John Paul II. If you’re so inclined, you could pick up some of these one-of-a-kind snapshots in the forthcoming auction, too.
All told, Ronny Sunshine’s Counter-Culture Collection, as it’s known, holds thousands of artifacts from New York’s artistic hey-day. This was at a time when New York City was a gritty place inhabited by strange people, some of whom refracted that grittiness through themselves to create beautiful artworks that, though timeless, are unmistakably rooted in a specific time and place. Sunshine himself is doubtless one of those unique characters. Now that he’s opening his reservoir of art, autographs and memorabilia to the public, we have one more reason to be thankful that the New York of old hasn’t faded fully into memory.
If you’ve got a few thousand dollars burning a hole in your pocket and a collector’s flair, head on over to online auction house Gotta Have Rock and Roll and browse what’s left of Sunshine’s collection through April 20th.