My wife says this is the difference between us, this second-rate landscape painting. Not the fact that it caught my eye — we’d both noticed it at the Humboldt Park sidewalk sale, hanging catawampus from a chainlink fence — but that I would give it a second look, that it would steal my attention for weeks to come, that I would obsess over it. Dated 1958, the painting featured a blue stream rippling through an empty farmstead, with a windmill on the horizon. A red-roofed barn. A smoky stand of aspen.
It was more Goodwill than Monet, but it wasn’t the childlike artistry that sparked my imagination. In the lower right-hand corner, the painter had signed his name in cartoonish capital letters: Torkel Gundel. I savored the syllables like hard candy. I pictured some kind of Shrek, inhabiting a fairy-tale world of kindly ogres and butterflies and other fantastical names, a world beyond the logic of this orderly farm.
Later that evening, I Googled the mystery artist and was surprised to find a slew of eBay pages and auction sites selling his pieces for hundreds of dollars apiece. But the work apparently sought by collectors wasn’t his landscape paintings. It was something called “cachet art.” Further Googling revealed that cachets are designs printed on envelopes or postcards that relate to either the cancellation date or the theme of the attached stamp. Among philatelists, the cachets most often collected are those made on what they call “first day covers,” or envelopes postmarked on the same day — and in the same city — that a new stamp is issued. A website called HipStamp listed one of Gundel’s first-day cover cachets (celebrating the 100th anniversary of baseball) for $254. Another (commemorating American presidents) was going for $335. Not insignificant sums, though a far cry from the six-figure prices fetched by very rare stamps; indeed, I later learned that cachets have a sort of stepchild status among serious philatelists. Still, there was something charming about Gundel’s cachets. Something worth holding on to.
I returned to the sidewalk sale the next evening and purchased the landscape for $20. Throughout the week, my wife would pass through the living room, squint at the blurry hay field eating up our floor space — the crude textures, the puzzling light — and ask again, “You spent how much on that?”
Unwilling to give up on discovering hidden treasure, I dove still deeper into the Torkel Gundel rabbit hole. According to an obituary in the Chicago Tribune from 1992, Gundel had lived in Jefferson Park and once ran his own advertising agency. A quick search of his name on YouTube yielded a single result, a 38-minute home-movie interview conducted by the artist’s son, Jim, in 1987. The two of them sit in tufted velvet chairs before a brick hearth, discussing Gundel’s peculiar pastime. Gundel is wearing polyester slacks and a collared sweater, glasses neatly folded in the front pocket, and throughout the video he directs the camera to a half-dozen different cachet covers, which he gently places on a desk. The light rebounds off his thinning white hair, and he gaily enunciates every word, as if speaking to a kindergarten classroom, shifting his focus between his son and the camera.
“Dad, can you tell us a little bit about your background?” the son asks.
“Why, sure!” the father replies.
I left Jim a note in the comments section. Barely a day later, there he was at the top of my inbox. I asked him about the provenance of the painting I’d bought. Jim surmised that his father might have given it to his own parents, who lived near Humboldt Park, and it had been left it in the apartment before they died.
“The painting is probably not of any real value,” Jim wrote, “just sentimental value to those that knew him. If you ever decide to part with it, I’d be willing to double your money.”
In a subsequent email, Jim cc’ed his sister, Karen, and her son, Jeff, all of whom shared fond memories of “Tork,” as Gundel was known to friends and family. Soon enough I was Zooming with the three of them, and the more they volunteered, the more smitten I became. Gundel’s life unspooled like a Wes Anderson film, a new quirk around every corner. He adored stinky cheeses, which his wife, Lenore, quarantined in a separate compartment of the refrigerator. And he buttered everything, they said: cookies, pizza crust. He answered the phone with quips like “Gundel’s Pool Hall” or “Gundel’s Retirement Home,” and he once let a window salesman talk for 20 minutes, Karen remembered, before Gundel finally replied, “Well, if you can get the son of a bitch that owns this place to buy them, I’d love to have them.”
Gundel’s family also shared all 23 pages of his unpublished and incomplete autobiography, which disclosed that he’d immigrated to Chicago from Denmark in 1912, when he was 10 years old. As a kid, he joined the Lone Scouts of America, a Boy Scouts spinoff. The group published a magazine, which is where Gundel honed his skills as a writer, artist, and editor. As a young man, he sold vacuums door to door for Eureka. He drew front-page cartoons for a trade magazine called the American Florist. He joined the Illinois National Guard. Interested in stamp collecting since childhood, he eventually cofounded the Gateway Philatelic Society.
When the Depression hit, Gundel, who’d noted a growing interest in cachet art, began selling envelopes bedecked with his own designs, which were more colorful than the commercially produced black-and-white ones commonly bought and sold by collectors at the time. He issued his first cachet on March 23, 1934, to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the founding of Maryland: George Calvert, First Baron of Baltimore, in a ruffled collar, alongside an image of the new colony, cleft apart by the Chesapeake Bay. Drawn and watercolored by hand, each envelope took hours, and soon he had orders for dozens more. To keep up, he later carved his cachets on wooden blocks and bought a used printing press for $40.
Eventually he started billing himself as the Cachet Artist, and by the end of the 1930s, Gundel had printed thousands of cachet covers and hand-painted hundreds more, commemorating everything from the 25th anniversary of the Panama Canal to Richard Byrd’s second Antarctic expedition. Perhaps more aware of his stature than Gundel ever was, dealers began requesting he autograph the envelopes. They called him a pioneer. “That’s the disadvantage of having such an odd name,” he wrote in the autobiography. “People usually remember it, particularly creditors.”
In the postwar years, as he pursued his advertising career, Gundel set aside his printing press. It was during this stretch, perhaps craving some artistic release, that he painted the much larger landscape I found in Humboldt Park. Only after he retired, in the late 1970s, did he return to cachets, and when he did, he became a stickler for the history of the event his cachet commemorated, introducing lots of explanatory text — entire paragraphs on golfer Bobby Jones or Smokey Bear or Ernest Hemingway alongside their likenesses. “He was a bull-fighter, big-game hunter and deep sea fisherman,” Gundel wrote of Hemingway on a cachet commemorating the 90th anniversary of the writer’s birth. “He couldn’t cope with his personal problems and ended his life in 1961.”
When Jim first offered to purchase the painting, I instantly broadcast the windfall to my wife, praising my own keen eye. I grew prouder still a week later, when a local dealer I’d contacted upped the ante. “I would give you $300 without a blink,” he said in an email. “Forty is not enough.”
Part of me wanted to jump at the offer, but I demurred. I pictured Tork, as I’d unwittingly begun to call him, standing before his easel, cheerily daubing another cloud in the sky, another leaf on the tree, maybe setting down his brush to entertain his kids or his grandkids or Digger, his West Highland white terrier, or to humor a window salesman. The notion of parting with this small piece of Chicago history suddenly began to smart.
The painting doesn’t quite fit in the spare bedroom. My wife refuses to hang it in ours. Perhaps the dining room could stand a splash of color.