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NYC art dealer leaves fortune to deli worker in Queens

At the height of his fame in the New York art world of the 1970s and ’80s, Andre Zarre was a leading contemporary dealer who partied with the city’s literati and international elites, including Gloria Vanderbilt, Jerzy Kosinski and Joyce Carol Oates.

He lived in a luxury building on Park Avenue and ran eponymous galleries on the Upper East Side, Soho and Chelsea. Friends say he amassed a sizable collection of art that could be worth millions, established a gallery in Brussels and was building a new art space in his native Poland, where he is well known as a poet.

“He wanted to create an American-style gallery and place his collection of paintings in Poland,” said Czeslaw Czaplinski, a Princeton-based photographer and longtime friend who was collaborating with Zarre on a book. “He was getting ready to go to Poland when I spoke to him.”

That phone conversation, which took place in the summer, would be their last. On July 15, Zarre died after falling in his apartment, barely a month after his 78th birthday.

Three days after his death, Zarre’s first cousin in England received a curious call from New York.

Jose Yeje, a counterman at a deli in Queens, introduced himself as the executor of Zarre’s will and the sole beneficiary to his multi-million dollar estate.

Andrzej Lech Sowulewski was born in Suwalki, a city of nearly 70,00 in northeastern Poland in June 1942. There is little known about his early life. Friends say his mother was a socialite who died when she was 40 years old. His father, John Sowelewski, was born in the US and brought his son to Chicago, where he enrolled him in school in 1959. He has a younger brother who has spent most of his life institutionalized in Poland.  By 1973, Sowulewski had changed his name to Andre Zarre and moved to New York City, where he established his first gallery a year later.

“Zarre had a real ‘eye’ and was a champion of abstract art from the moment he founded his gallery,” wrote artist Dana Gordon in The New Criterion in August. “His galleries were always spacious and unpretentious, oriented simply to show the art.”

In 1981, he moved to the Fuller building at 41 East 57th St., where the city’s most important galleries were located. He showed art by Vanderbilt and photographs by “Being There” author Kosinski. He partied with Nobel laureate Joseph Brodsky and diplomats from around the world. He was friends with Zbigniew Brzezinski, whose wife Emilie Benes Brzezinski, a sculptor, was among his stable of artists. Brzezinski, who died in 2017, was President Jimmy Carter’s National Security advisor and a counselor to President Lyndon Johnson. He was the father of journalist Mika Brzezinski Scarborough.

Andre Zarre
Andre ZarreCzeslaw Czaplinski

Zarre was among the first gallerists to champion the work of contemporary women painters, including Ellen Banks, Dee Shapiro, Elena Borstein and Pat Lipsky. He also collected works by Irene Rice Pereira, an abstract painter and poet who had an important influence on modern art in the US before her death in 1971. Most of his artists would go on to have their works included in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney.

“He was always following things very acutely,” said Lipsky, 79, adding that Zarre had two of her paintings in his collection. “He is unprecedented in my experience, but he could also be strange.” In 1990, when he was helping Lipsky hang her paintings for a show, he was convinced that his hands were being poisoned by the frames, she said.

“He had really good taste, but he could also do things that were really bizarre,” she said.

In addition to preparing art shows and writing poetry, Zarre was always looking for new business opportunities, friends told The Post. He once tried to champion Polish cuisine by investing in a food truck, they said.

“I never understood why he would get involved in anything except art,” said Nick Wolfson, a New York- and Puerto Rico-based artist who was represented by Zarre, whom he also considered a close friend. “He was a very capable art dealer who was very respected in the art world, but the food truck was a disaster.”

When Zarre told Wolfson that he was buying a deli in Queens and working with Yeje last year, Wolfson said he was surprised and a little worried. By then, Zarre was in failing health and nearly blind — easy prey for a hustler, he said. “I realized that Andre was vulnerable,” recalled Wolfson, 76. “He was really going blind and could barely put one foot in front of the other. I asked if he had any plans for his estate.”

But Zarre, who was “very guarded and private,” according to Wolfson, shrugged him off, even after Wolfson introduced him to a lawyer friend who urged him to create a will. Instead, on Oct. 19, 2019, Zarre became sole incorporator of the Palermo Delicatessen in Glendale. Yeje was put in charge of the Myrtle Avenue operation, which he told The Post he co-owned.

“He asked me to send Yeje some of my paintings so they could hang them in the deli,” Wolfson told The Post, adding that it was the first time he became aware of Yeje. “I guess Andre was trying to make the deli more upmarket and sophisticated, but I thought, ‘Who is this guy? Is it safe to send my paintings?’”

Yeje, 50, who describes himself as a businessman, said he lives with his wife and four children in Ozone Park. He runs an ice-cream wholesale business and became business partners with Zarre in the deli, he said. Yeje said he first met Zarre in 2016:  “I met him in Valley Stream over an ice cream deal,” he said. “I was the wholesaler and he wanted to be a distributor.”

Although the deal fell through, the two became friends, said Yeje. “He was an awesome person,” he said, adding that he eventually became his “caretaker” when Zarre’s health went into further decline and he started to close up his gallery business.

“He had bad knees, he couldn’t walk and he had heart problems, diabetes and gout,” said Yeje. “I washed him, I bought his groceries and fed him. He trusted me and I took care of him. He was almost on the verge of coming to live with me in my home. We talked about it a lot.”

At the height of the coronavirus pandemic, Zarre tested positive for COVID and began experiencing greater problems with his heart. He was rushed to Lenox Hill Hospital where doctors installed a pacemaker, Yeje said.

“I washed him [Zarre], I bought his groceries and fed him. He trusted me and I took care of him.

 – Jose Yeje

Jeanette Malaty, a lawyer whose office is next to the Palermo Deli, recalled seeing Zarre six days a week when she would stop in to buy her morning coffee.

“Jose would order a car service for him to come every day, and sometimes Andre would fall asleep with his head on the table in the back,” said Malaty.

She said Zarre approached her in January to draw up a will. She told The Post that she asked him for a list of assets but by the time she was ready to draft the will, she was forced to shut down her office due to the pandemic.

According to friends and some of the artists he represented, Zarre closed down his Chelsea gallery — the last one he owned in the city — when his health began to fail a few years ago. He had some of the art he had acquired over the years in his apartment, but had also put a great deal in storage, said a friend who did not want to be identified.

“I can’t comment on the will,” said Malaty, adding that she did not draft it although she said she has seen a copy. The copy of the will that The Post viewed did not include an inventory of the art dealer’s assets.

“I am not going to talk about any of his assets because it’s all confidential,” said Malaty. “All I can tell you is that Jose was the closest person in his life. I saw it myself.”

But neighbors and workers at Zarre’s Park Avenue building where he lived for 32 years told The Post that Yeje only started to come around in the last several months of Zarre’s life. “He only knew the guy for the last eight months, if that,” said a building maintenance worker who did not want to be identified. “Nobody liked him here. … He just took over his life.”

Still, on July 15, when Zarre was rushed to hospital after falling in his bathroom, it was Yeje who was called by building management and it was Yeje who was entrusted with the care of the gallerist’s beloved 12-year-old cat Cappuccino.

“They called me from the building, and while I was in the process of driving over there in my car, Andre had a heart attack,” said Yeje, whose signature appears on Zarre’s death certificate where he claims to be the art dealer’s nephew.

Shortly after Zarre’s death, Yeje contacted Zarre’s cousin in England, informing him that Zarre had died and that he was now the art dealer’s sole heir.

“I was shocked,” said Arkadiusz Tomasik, speaking through his son Daniel, who translated from the Polish. “For more than 30 years, he said that he would leave us everything. He never told us he had changed his will.”

Tomasik told The Post that he last spoke to Zarre on July 6 — the same day he signed a will making Yeje his sole beneficiary. But the subject never came up.

“We can’t believe that he did this,” said Tomasik, adding that Zarre took care of his brother, Krysztof, who is institutionalized in Poland.  “It’s not possible.”

Others who knew the art dealer also had questions.

“How did he sign his name? Did he know what he was signing and how did he get to Queens?” said Phillys Dubrow, a Manhattan trusts and estates attorney who had urged Zarre to make a will years before, and represented him in a failed legal action to recoup one of his artist’s estates a few years ago.

“This can’t be,” said another longtime friend in the Park Avenue building. “Andre was legally blind. We used to take his finger to help him sign his checks.”

Yeje refused comment on the will, where he is listed as “friend/caretaker” to Zarre. “He always gave me instructions with people I needed to call after his death,” said Yeje. “And I have called all of them.”

On Sept. 21, Yeje sent a notarized letter to Tomasik offering cash and land that Zarre owned in Poland in exchange for not challenging the will.

“Also I will give to them a sum of $45,000 from bank account in Poland upon signature required for a non-contest of will which is attached to this document,” said the statement that Malaty notarized, viewed by The Post.

Tomasik said that he suspects that Zarre had a great deal more in cash in Polish accounts, and the family is considering legal action. This surprised Malaty and Yeje, who said they have had nothing but cordial conversations with Tomasik.

After his death, Zarre’s remains were sent to the Fresh Pond Crematory in Middle Village, according to the death certificate viewed by The Post. Yeje said he couldn’t hold a funeral and invite Zarre’s friends because of the coronavirus pandemic. But he said he had promised his family in England that he would send them a portion of Zarre’s ashes.

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