The aspiring cult leader’s missing art and the nephew obsessed with his legacy

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Lester Chanin was asleep the night the paintings were taken. He was only 15, and though it happened more than 50 years ago, he still remembers waking the next day to a world that seemed irrevocably changed.

The painter, his uncle Bradford Boobis, had died hours earlier, an event Chanin described in a recent interview as like a “meteor dropping out of space.”

Then the paintings disappeared.

“It blew the family up,” Chanin said.

There’s a good chance you’ve never heard of Bradford Boobis. A tall man whose chiseled face was framed by a fluffed pompadour, Boobis was, to all appearances, a colorful, eccentric and professed minor celebrity. But to his family and followers, he was a towering figure — the sun around which the family orbited, according to Chanin.

Boobis had also, in his later life, started courting followers to a cultlike philosophical movement which he called Life, Infinity, Man (LIM). The philosophy was rooted in humanism and considered the “works of man” — such as fine art and scientific discoveries — to be holy. According to his followers, Boobis’ own paintings fit that criteria, and by extension, so did he.

“An amazing giant of a personality,” said Louis K. Meisel, who represented Boobis and displayed his paintings in his gallery.

Boobis died of a heart attack in 1972 at 44, leaving behind his wife, Shawn, and two children. That evening, according to family lore, four of his most dedicated devotees let themselves into Boobis’ studio on Central Park West, and three of them removed roughly a dozen of his paintings.

Boobis’ sudden death was an enormous blow to his family. Chanin, now 66 but then an impressionable and admiring teenager, felt it profoundly, as if the life force of his universe had been extinguished.

The disappearance of the paintings only compounded this sense of loss for Chanin. It was a feeling that would calcify over time into an obsession.

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