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Gallery K co-owners Komei Wachi and H. Marc Moyens loved to travel, artist Barbara Godwin recalls. But whenever they flew, they always took separate planes. They didn’t want to die together in a crash and leave their R Street NW gallery in crisis.

Wachi and Moyens, who were partners in life as well as business, didn’t die together. But they did die within six weeks of each other—French-born Moyens, 83, of an apparent heart attack in April, and Japanese-born Wachi, 67, of pancreatic cancer on May 13. And their sudden deaths have put the future of the 28-year-old gallery very much in doubt.

“There is a will,” explains Godwin, a longtime Gallery K artist. “It’s not that there’s no will. But they left everything to each other.”

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That means that the two men’s estates, including the gallery and their large art collection, will pass to Moyens’ two sisters, who live in France, and Wachi’s brother, who lives in Japan. Takayuki Wachi visited his brother during his final days, reports Makoto “Mike” Hatanaka, a longtime friend of Wachi and Gallery K. But Takayuki has no interest in the gallery business.

For the time being, Godwin and another Gallery K artist, David Moy, are running the gallery with Hatanaka, a Japanese-born art collector and semiretired accountant who began helping Wachi at the gallery in 1996. “We just happened to be here when Komei became ill,” says Godwin. She and Hatanaka moved in with Wachi as he was dying, with Hatanaka preparing Japanese-style meals for him.

The three impromptu curators expect to be able to keep the gallery open until the end of June with a previously planned exhibition, opening June 4, of work by Spanish painter Albert Reguera. Wachi had already announced that the show would be dedicated to Moyens’ memory. Now, Godwin says, “it’s a memorial to both of them.”

Shows tentatively scheduled through November will probably have to be canceled. Godwin, who describes her work as “unreasonably large abstract painting,” notes that local artists and embassies—Gallery K showed much European and Japanese work—have been calling, hoping to find a way to extend the schedule. But she doubts that the gallery, launched in 1975 as the successor to Moyens’ Gallery Marc, can continue beyond the Reguera show.

That will be a blow to the many local artists Gallery K has handled or might have handled in the future. Wachi and Moyens were beloved for their integrity and vision, giving shows to unknowns, exhibiting a high proportion of women, and quietly buying back work at full price from collectors who changed their minds.

“It’s just been the best gallery in Washington,” says painter and multimedia artist Y. David Chung, who had his first show there in 1987 while still a student at the Corcoran. “They were very straightforward in operating. Totally honest.”

“Most galleries won’t take people without credentials,” Godwin notes. “But Komei believed in his own judgment.” Even though Wachi came to Washington to study mathematics, not art, Hatanaka adds, “he trusted his eye.”

Godwin’s late husband, Robert Godwin, was also a Gallery K artist. Wachi and Moyens, she remembers, told him his art “was beautiful, but it won’t sell. And it didn’t sell. But they gave him two shows.”

It’s possible that Gallery K could somehow survive. Someone could buy the R Street town house, with its dramatic open staircase to the second floor, and try to keep the business going.

Godwin doubts, however, that the gallery’s essence would survive. “It’s just hard to imagine anyone else running it,” she says. —Mark Jenkins