WEDNESDAY: A Real Steal

BY LARRY FLEWIN

Copyright is held by the author.

STEAM FILLED the room with a hot damp cloud that seemed out of place with a brilliant afternoon sun streaming in through dirt-encrusted windows.

“Are you sure this is a good idea?” Adrianna asked nervously. It had always been her impression that really old paintings and water didn’t like each other very much.

“Oh yes, yes, is work many time before, make canvas look very old. You see this one, much steam much heat now look, very old, easy to paint. You see, when I paint look just like old one. No one can tell. You sell, we make money, I make more paintings. Who you want next.”

“Camille Pissarro,” she blurted out. He was next on the list of Abstract and Impressionist painters she carried in her purse. Her well-heeled clientele loved that style of painting, the more obscure the painter the better. They flocked to her gallery in droves every time she acquired one, more than willing to pay whatever price she cared to name.

“Are you sure Wai Pei, it’s awful damn steamy in here, it’s not going to wreck anything, is it? I’ve got a lot riding on this one, a couple of clients with very particular tastes. I’m the only they trust.”

“Oh yes, very sure,” he said airily. “Is no problem, give me month and I make perfect, you sell easy.”

And with that he vanished into the steamy back rooms of his studio where stacks of blank canvases and other half completed ventures slowly aged with grace. Adrianna punched the air all the way down the stairs to her waiting car service. Yeah baby, another million plus heading her way just as soon as Wai Pei did his thing. Who knew the art business could be so life rewarding, and so lucrative.

This was the 12th year of business for the Castle Gallery on Tenth Street East, the Tenth Castle as Adrianna so eloquently wrote on her business cards. Sales weren’t entirely brisk, they never were in the art world. She was fond of saying she made just enough to keep the lights on the and champagne flowing.

During its long run the gallery had become famous for it’s unique ability to suss out the works of Impressionists long thought lost, pieces so obscure as to be virtually unknown. Success in tracking them down had netted her fame and a great deal of fortune. And that was what was awaiting her back at the Tenth Castle, a small fortune named Mimi van Dyke, heiress to a baking fortune and completely dotty.

“Mimi, darling, how good to see you again,” warbled Adrianna as she breezed in. “You look lovely today, yellow is so you. Come, let me show you my latest find, you’ll just adore it! I know I did the first time I saw it.” And with that took the spindly grey-haired heiress by the elbow and gracefully steered her down the middle of the gallery.

“Ooh, pretty,” gasped a delighted Mimi. “Why does he look so sad, did he have a bad day? I don’t like bad days they make me sad I don’t like being sad do you like being sad?”

Adrianna clamped a hand to her mouth to stifle a most unladylike guffaw.

“Um, Mimi dearest, that’s the artist, this is the painting.”

“Oooohhh, it’s very green I like green my tea is green I want it.” And with that Mimi was off and running through the cavernous gallery, sipping herbal tea and commenting on whatever else came to mind. She may have had the attention span of a sparrow but once she said no that was it. Cultivating that attention span had been hard work but the payoff was about to be the third sale of a painting whose provenance was as deep as its new owner. Mimi’s minder shrugged his shoulders and pulled out a check book and a pen.

Over the years, Adrianna had wined and dined her way into a number of close friendships with the city’s one percent. Those with a sublime taste for art, deep pockets, and a thirst for whatever was new, exciting, and one-of-a-kind. In other words, exclusive and expensive. In the rarefied air of the superrich it was the old sandbox story. Mine is bigger than yours, mine is more expensive than yours, mine was harder to find.

Impressionists and Abstract Expressionists such as Pissarro, Corot, and Signac were Adrianna’s go-to painters. Their semi-obscurity gave them a certain cachet, making them almost as expensive as a Reubens or a Michelangelo but a lot easier to sell. That they were the easiest to reproduce in Wai Pei’s loft studio was just sauce to the goose.

Adrianna had stumbled across Wai Pei outside a coffee shop where she’d gone to pick up her third macchiato of the morning. She was trying to unload lofts in a failing condo conversion to some tech geeks from Taiwan. Without much success. At first sight Wai Pei appeared to be no more than just another grubby street artist selling copies of whatever came to mind and brush. His work lined the sidewalk like escapees from an art museum.

She knew nothing about art herself but knew what she liked. Enough to throw down fifty bucks for one, thinking she might throw it up on the wall of the loft. Class the place up a little maybe squeeze a few hundred more out of her prospective clients.

The effect of the painting on the afternoon group was just the opposite. Some guy in the back of the crowd, a tall loon with a goofy grin and black framed glasses took one look at the painting and had a fit.

“Where you get dis?” he gasped excitedly. “I want, I want!”

“What? That?”

“Yes, yes, is Rothko. My father and uncle buy many, not have dis one. Want pay you now. I make check right now.” And he was as good as his word, pulling out a stylized Chinese wallet and scribbling away on a piece of paper the size of a novel.

Adrianna had no idea who Rothko was but she couldn’t miss the excitement her idea had generated. It was a welcome surprise after a week of difficult prospects.

“Yes, yes of course, it comes with the loft, but I think I can make a deal with the owner.”

“No, no deal!” he said sharply. “Buy now. Here is check.” He waved it at her excitedly. She snatched it out of his hands, unsure of what to expect but hoping this still might make the sale. It didn’t, but Loon had given her fifty thousand dollars for something she’d just picked up off the street.

Her hands didn’t stop shaking until the cheque cleared.

Ever the entrepreneur, Adrianna quickly spiced up her loft sales pitch with a Wai Pei special casually mounted on a bare wall. It never failed, someone in the crowd would gasp and point excitedly, acting as if they had found the Holy Grail. Her pretence of surprise was quickly followed by the gracious acceptance of a five or six figure check and a ceremonious ripping it off the wall. All that excitement and money for basic street art.

Like most street artists Wai Pei focused his creativity on cranking out copies of older works although his subject matter leaned towards the obscure. Five minutes of conversation and a four-figure check later he was creating for Adrianna exclusively. She convinced him that he needed a partner to handle the business end of things so he could focus on his artistry. He nodded affably, flashed a toothy grin, and a year later, the Tenth CASTLE gallery was born.

Word got out, as it always did, and before the doors were even officially open Adrianna was holding private showings. Clients rolled up in chauffeur-driven Escalades to preview what she had on the walls. Most of it was junky stuff from local artists and lesser known galleries but buried in all that were the one or two pieces she hoped to cash in on.

Questions about provenance, history, even the artist, were all answered with a well honed don’t-you-trust-me look of surprise. Obfuscation, hurt, and even a little anger went a long way to convincing clients that what was on the wall was probably authentic, but couldn’t be independently verified. Trust me, she would whisper conspiratorially, it comes from a very private estate. They need to move it and no one knows it’s here. Eyes would widen and pen hands would twitch.

“Trust me, mister uh, Smith,” purred Adrianna. “This particular work is one of El Greco’s finest and most obscure pieces. It was last seen in some Spanish art gallery decades ago and here it is now. Don’t ask me how I got it, you don’t want to know, and even if I did tell you, would you believe me? Trust me when I say it’s a steal at nine eight five thousand, the market is hot so it’s increasing in value even as we stand here.”

“Yeah yeah yeah, I get that, when can I have it,” snapped Smith. His factory stressed jeans and bright red lumberjack shirt spoke of impatient money, a gen-Y on his way to the top as fast as he could go, caring for nothing except how much money he could make along the way. This work was probably destined for a warehouse where he’d wait for it to appreciate in value and then flip it to a fellow gen-Y for a tidy profit.

“Well,” she murmured. “It does take time to clean it and properly prepare it for shipment. Say ten days?”

“Make it five and I’ll double your fee.” It was that kind of world.

Adrianna enjoyed extracting vast amounts of money from all those one-percenters, the very same who’d made her life in condo sales a living nightmare. The perfect sale could be ruined for as little as a chip of paint on a doorframe, or the wrong shade of floor tiles. Now they were lining up to throw money at her, calling her at home, apologizing for the intrusion, but couldn’t they just have a quick sneak peek at what she might have. I’ll make it worth your while?

Then there was the sheer joy of recognition as the City’s newest art gallery scene up-and-comer. Her skill at uncovering long lost art was the talk of the town, the uber-rich part of town, the don’t-tell-anybody-but-I- just-spent-seven-figures-on-this part of town. Her quiet success put her on the front page more than once, the society pages more often than not, and the recipient of more exclusive invitations than she could possibly accept in a lifetime.

“Oh, come now darling,” she would posit to herself in her makeup mirror. “Be honest, do you really suppose they have any idea of what’s going on? Probably not. And do they really care, no, why would they, they’re making money I’m making money everybody gets what they want, how could that be a bad thing.” There was just something about watching gazillionaires going after each other in bidding wars that just seemed to make it all worthwhile. I mean come on darling aren’t we all fakes in one way or another?

And so, it went for 12 glorious years.

Until that dreadful day when those nasty little men in blue uniforms burst in and arrested her in front of an amused Mimi. They had the effrontery to accuse her of masterminding an art forgery scam so lucrative their forensic accountants were having difficulty figuring out how much money was involved. It didn’t help that the accounts involved were in Switzerland and the Cayman Islands. This was white-collar crime, with insurance and embarrassment covering pretty much everything they saw no need to bend their privacy rules. Besides, no one was complaining.

No one that is except Charles Davenport. It was he who first alerted the police that something was amiss when he found a Robert Motherwell hanging in a business associate’s office in Taipei. When asked where it had come from, the associate gleefully announced he’d gotten a steal of a deal from the Tenth Castle Gallery in New York. The same gallery where Davenport had purchased the same one not a year earlier.

When confronted by an outraged Davenport, Adrianna denied everything.

“You cheated me,” he roared. “That Motherwell you sold me is a copy!!”

“Oh, my that’s just terrible, I am so sorry to hear that.” She was heartbroken, tears actually graced her cheeks. “But I assure you I had nothing to do with it. I’m just a broker helping a very wealthy and very private client with his collection.”

“What? You’re kidding me, right? You had nothing to do with this?”

“I’m just as hurt as you are. The gentleman in question told me he inherited the work along with several other pieces. Family you see, he has none and has absolutely no interest in the collection. I was engaged merely to act as a conduit for him to sell them to discerning individuals such as yourself. He assured me it was all legitimate.” Apparently, he had other things he wanted to spend his money on and a private art collection wasn’t one of them.

Legitimate my ass, if that’s so how come there are two copies of the work, both fakes, and both bought here in your gallery! Please don’t tell me Motherwell was reproducing his own works, I’m not that dumb. I want my money back, now!”

In response to his tirade Adrianna smiled sweetly and talk about upcoming exhibitions. She was a world-renowned art dealer and wasn’t in the business of selling fakes. He had it all wrong, she was doing the world a great favour by bringing all these obscure works into the light. Here they could be appreciated and purchased by the greater public at large, surely he could see the idealism in that. How could her philanthropy possibly be criminal she asked innocently? Davenport stormed out, cellphone glued to his ear.

Almost immediately lawyers, the police, the DA’s office and reporters besieged the Tenth Castle. Adrianna was quite put out by all the attention, enough to hire private security to keep them all out. Then came the arrest. Mimi was quite amused, applauding Adrianna as she was hustled out to a waiting squad car and a date with a judge.

The indictment suggested that Adrianna had spent the last ten years or so engaged in a sophisticated art forgery scam that had fooled everyone in the Art world and had cost individual collectors millions. Even as a minor chill swept across the collecting world witnesses proved difficult if not impossible to find.

Speaking to reporters on the steps of the courthouse the DA explained that cases like this were difficult to prosecute. The case rested on a collector’s belief that they had gotten a steal of a deal on a lesser work of an semi-obscure artist. If the work had little or no provenance, it only added to the excitement of the moment and fuelled the desire to acquire the piece.

“Even if they find out they’d been taken, the amount of money involved, and the possibility of selling it for even more keeps them quiet,” he groused. “They might be guilty of little more than sheer stupidity and greed, but admitting that publicly never happens. Pride may goeth before a fall but no one’s about to finger the accused for any of it. Pride has that affect on people.” He sighed deeply and trudged back to his office and the failing prosecution.

The case went to trial after months of legal wrangling, not the least of which was the DA’s inability to produce any of the fakes or their owners, save for Davenport. Sadly, many so-called collectors were little more than fraud artists themselves. They bought obscure works sight-unseen at whatever price was asked, based solely on a desire to acquire and in some cases quickly resell the work. The obscurer the better.

What they were doing wasn’t illegal but the case served to shed a little light on the dark side of art collecting. Pride of ownership wasn’t enough, the secret pride of acquiring a rare piece or getting a better price for flipping it was.  Price and provenance be damned.

On the last day of the trial, a clearly frustrated DA addressed the jury. One last roll of the dice to get a conviction on a case that had proved almost impossible to prove:

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury I ask you put aside your preconceived notions of deceit and greed and ask yourselves this question. What does this case say about our society and its deep-rooted desire for honesty and integrity if we no longer care what we see or hear is true or false?   

Has the art of the deal become more important that the art of deal making? Has possession become more important than discussion and dissemination? Do we care so little for our fellow man that we will spend any amount to better ourselves at his expense? How can that bring out the best in any of us. How can that be the defining moment in our society, when the need for greed trumps all else. It can’t. Does freedom and liberty and justice for all mean just for those who can afford it?   

 

 

4 comments

  1. Connie Lynn Cook

    Loved this story! Just wondering, do I detect a note of Trumpism as the DA addresses the jury?

  2. Dave Moores

    Very nice work and great fun. I did find the end didactic, and oh come on, did she walk or not?

  3. Sharon Frayne

    My nerdish radar is on high alert – you’ve created an interesting look at the complex relationships between the worlds of ‘high art’ and ‘the emperor’s new clothes’. I’m intrigued by the reference to Mark Rothko – whose ‘colorist’/abstract expressionist style is easy for fraudulent reproduction, and quite a probability. His estate was involved in a major lawsuit regarding sham sales after his death. Lots of possibilities to keep Mimi well amused.

    Nice to read a tale that explores a fascinating dark alley in the fine art world.

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