To add to the ever-increasing list of art scams comes this story, which distinguishes itself with its novel, dramatic flair. I should say “possible” art scams, since this one remains unproved. As you know, usually I write only about Picasso, but this tale seemed so unusual that it grabbed my attention. How about I lay bare the story and you could be the judge?
About a month ago, on a fine spring morning, two friends of mine, a well-heeled Bay Area couple on a jaunt to NY, stumbled into a Chelsea gallery, where an installation of works on paper by a Japanese artist was being hung. They fell in love with two of the artworks, each measuring around 2 x 1.5 ft., asked for the prices ($2500 each), negotiated a combined price of $4000, and paid. Since the show was in the midst of installation, they inquired whether the artist was around because they wanted to meet him. The gallery owner said that artist had stepped out but would call them upon his return. Having received the call, they reappeared at the gallery, only to be beset by the artist’s distraught wife, who cried that the price of each work was actually $25,000. The gallery owner said that the art belonged to the purchasers, but hopefully my friends would do “the right thing”. They said they’d think about it. A day or two later, they phoned the gallery and offered a total payment of $8000. The owner said he would consider the offer and later accepted it.
In the meantime, my friends Googled the artist and found nothing. This was apparently his first show, or at least his first show in the US. My interest was piqued because $25,000 seemed an unusually high sum for an undistinguished work on paper of this size by an unknown artist in an obscure gallery.
I haven’t yet described the obscurity of the gallery. I’ll let you read my friend and fellow collector’s words, whom I sicced on them, or I should say, who graciously did me the favor of investigating. Here’s his take (I’ve substituted Gallery X for the gallery’s name and Artist X for the artist’s name in his narrative):
“Most Chelsea galleries are closed weekends in the summer, as jet setters leave for the Hamptons. (I believe a few galleries open outposts there.) That said, the larger ones are open. So I assumed between Gagosian being large and almost more of a museum, it would be open. Apparently I was wrong. Very upsetting. Gallery X, however, was open, which was a bit surprising. How your friends found this gallery is anyone’s guess. It was tucked way back in a warehouse gallery building on the third floor. I do not mean this all to sound snobbish (as I think most store fronts are likely to rob you) but this gallery was just very off the beaten path. I went in and a white haired man, who felt like the proprietor (though I did not ask), seemed somewhat surprised when I asked about Artist X. He said they “have shown his work” when I asked if they were his dealer, but he had no information on him. Note he is not one of the artists on their website now. He did not volunteer any information about the artist (or even bother trying to push me towards something else). I gave him my email, and he may send me some stuff but who knows. I looked around a bit at other art in the gallery. None of it my thing but interestingly, all well under $5K for most pieces (and a lot close to $1K). It would seem very odd for a gallery representing artists (there were maybe 10 on display) at that price point to then show an artist that much pricier, but maybe it was a special show. But why would an artist of that level hold a special show at a gallery that is so far out of the way and has clients at a different (albeit not massively different) price point? Anyway, certainly nothing conclusive but still a bit odd. Let’s see if he sends me any pieces they have for sale.”
It’s been a week. Still waiting for a price list from Gallery X. I suppose it could still arrive. In the meantime, what do you think: scam, or not? Have you ever heard of such a thing?