In the last few months I watched a couple movies about two controversial artist’s. One was the documentary “My Kid Could Paint That”, and the other was the Hollywood movie “Big Eyes”. The documentary was about Marla Olmstead, who at the time was a 4 year old abstract artist, whose work was selling in the thousands. The movie “Big Eyes”, was about Walter Keane and his paintings featuring sad little girls with big eyes. Both these films dealt with the possibility the work was created by someone other then the artist.
In “My Kid Could Paint That” the documentary takes a look at the work Marla was said to be creating but eventually takes a turn to seriously cast doubt on whether she is actually doing the paintings. The controversy started after a 60 Minutes did a feature on Marla which pretty much concluded she didn’t do the paintings. Her father was an amateur painter by day and worked for Frito Lay at night. He also did abstracts but never had much success. Some believe he used Marla to get attention that resulted in the hype and frenzy that followed. I won’t go into much detail other then saying, when they finally filmed her painting it seemed obvious to me, she was not the artist.
As a kid in the 50s and 60s there were two artists whose work I enjoyed. The first was Norman Rockwell who became well known for his cover illustrations on the Saturday Evening Post and the other was Walter Keane who had his start in San Francisco. It seemed anytime you went downtown you would find stores handling posters of his paintings. I found the eyes painted on these little girls to be almost hypnotic. For some reason I was really drawn into it. It wasn’t until years later that we found out he was a big fraud…His wife Margaret, was the actual artist.
To my knowledge neither of them faced any criminal or civil charges for fraud. Those so called art experts and collectors that were raving about little Marla, paid thousands of dollars thinking it would be a good investment. I hope they really like their purchase because they will most likely never recover their investment. Margaret Keane is still painting and owns Keane Eyes Gallery in San Francisco.
Center Art Galleries, Hawaii
In 1989 my wife and I were vacationing in Hawaii for the first time. While in Maui we visited Center Art Gallery in Lahaina. It had a great location on Front St. and one I’d like to exhibit in. I made an appointment the for next day to show my portfolio. When my wife and I arrived we were met by the manager…If I could remember correctly, I think his name was Von Tempski . The first impression he made was that of arrogance…All he needed was to be wearing a monocle and he could have been a character out of a Bogart movie. We spoke for a bit then he quickly paged through my portfolio without comment. After he finished, which couldn’t have taken more then a minute, he dropped the portfolio on the table and said he would consider representing me with conditions. He went on to say they would require an exclusive for all of Hawaii, which would fine for me since they had at least 5 galleries throughout Hawaii. Next he said they would be taking a 75% commission, which was a problem but I figured we could still negotiate that. The final condition was he wanted me to copy the style of an artist they were currently representing who was leaving to open his own gallery. That artist’s name was Christian Reese Lassen, who at that time, I never heard of. His work was beautiful, but reminded me of another artist popular in Hawaii. That artist was Robert Lynn Nelson. It was becoming very clear originality wasn’t important: just paint whatever the flavor of the month may be even if it means copying. I thanked him for his time and said I would have to give it some thought. As soon as we left my wife and I looked at each other and agreed there was no way we wanted to be associated with Center Art Galleries.
About 4 months after returning from our trip, I received my latest edition of Art Business News. On the cover, in bold letters, read the headline “Center Art Galleries, Hawaii, indicted on 93 counts of fraud”. This was a federal indictment and at the time the largest ever brought on an art gallery.
They were accused of selling fake signed and number limited edition prints by Salvador Dali and Marc Chagall. One story said they went so far as to claim some of Dali’s prints were on parchment from the Vatican flock and collectors who would be purchasing the print would have their names listed in the archives of the Vatican. Those who fell for this pitch soon found out the parchment was actually vellum and the Vatican doesn’t have a flock.
The trial and appeals went on for years but eventually Center Art Galleries owner, William Mett and VP Marvin Wiseman were convicted of mail, wire and security fraud and sentenced to 5 years.
My intent I in writing this was to shed light on a few situations that happened in the past and most likely will happen again. Fortunately this kind of outright deception or fraud is not the norm with most artists and galleries. If you like art, visit galleries and museums every chance you get. You will soon find there are artists, whose styles, subject matters, and mediums that you like, making you a more informed collector and your gallery experience that much more enjoyable.