The William Aiken Walker Affair
by David Hewett, originally appeared in the Maine Antique Digest in 2000, copyright by MAD
On April 25, 2000, in a federal courtroom in Columbia, South Carolina, 47-year-old Charles L. Heller made a plea bargain that avoided two charges of fraud.
Heller, a convicted felon, pleaded guilty to Withholding Information on a Crime, specifically: "knowing certain works of art purportedly painted by William Aiken Walker were forgeries..." and "did conceal this fact from an art dealer...." He faces up to one year in prison for that charge.
Charles Heller, 6'2" and weighing well over 200 pounds, was living in Boca Raton, Florida, in the spring of 2000. He is divorced and has $16,000 in credit card debt. Heller was in the South Carolina courtroom because of evidence gathered by the F.B.I. and the U.S. Attorney's office implicating him in the sale of no fewer than ten suspect paintings that were offered and sold as the work of William Aiken Walker (1839-1921).
"These are tough cases to prove," Assistant U.S. Attorney Beth Drake said after the trial was ended with Heller's plea bargain. "He [Heller] faces a year in jail. It's a good result for us."
It remains to be seen whether it was a good result for the art market.
William Aiken Walker was born in Charleston, South Carolina, on March 11, 1839. He had an artistic bent at a very early age; he exhibited his first oil painting at the South Carolina Institute in 1850 when he was 11 years old. The first known still life by Walker was produced in 1858. Animal and fish portraits followed, along with a few portraits and landscapes.
During the Civil War, Walker served as a private in Charleston's Palmetto Regiment of the South Carolina Volunteers. He was given a medical discharge in August 1861. He continued to serve as a volunteer draftsman in the Confederate Engineers Corps.
When Charleston was decimated in a great fire in 1861, Walker recorded the resultant ruins. In 1863 Charleston was shelled by Union troops; Walker recorded that event too.
In 1864 Walker created perhaps the most collectible of all decks of American playing cards. Sixteen of the cards carried miniature paintings, ranging from the bombardment of Fort Sumter to portraits of Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, P.G.T. Beauregard, and Stonewall Jackson as kings.
What Walker did between 1866 and 1868 remains a mystery, but by the latter year he had settled in Baltimore. He visited New York and Cuba but was back in Baltimore by 1871, when he began the series of paintings that would capture the attention of present-day collectors.
Walker's Gathering Herbs, 1871, depicted an African-American woman at the herb garden, a basket in her arms, and another on her head. The depictions of what would be later known as "The Sunny South" had commenced. Although he painted scenes depicting Anglo-Saxon citizens and landscapes, it would be the African-American scenes that would come to be recognized as Walker's seminal body of work.
He traveled extensively in the South, from South Carolina to the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, to Florida, to New Orleans, and wherever he traveled, he painted. The focus of his energy from the early 1880's to the mid-1890's was the cotton trade. Walker was fortunate in many ways, not the least of which is the fact that his paintings were collected and sold during his lifetime. Major paintings sold in the $70 to $100 range while he still was alive.
By the time Walker had reached his sixties, he returned to landscapes and still life subjects, though his bread-and-butter work was still the genre scenes of the Old South. Walker died on January 3, 1921, just two months shy of his 82nd birthday.
The Problem Paintings
Walker's work has never gone out of vogue altogether since his death. It was collectible in the 1930's; it's collectible in 2000. This magazine has reported on the sale of approximately 45 Walker works of art at auction during the last decade. Among that number were some fakes.
"We knew there were bad Walkers out there for years, but it wasn't until the word got out that I was collecting information on Walker paintings that I began seeing so many of them," said Robert M. Hicklin, Jr. in 1995. "People would come to me and ask if I'd like to include their painting in the book. I hated to do it, but finally I began asking the owners where they had bought them, and the answer most came up with was Charles Heller."
"Telling the fakes from the real Walkers isn't that hard, not when you've seen hundreds..."
Hicklin is the owner of Charleston Renaissance Gallery, Charleston and Spartanburg, South Carolina, specializing in the art of the American South, and the publisher of the 1995 book The Sunny South: The Life and Art of William Aiken Walker by Cynthia Seibels.
"Telling the fakes from the real Walkers isn't that hard, not when you've seen hundreds, like I have. The fakes are done on old artist board or canvases, but they are wrong stylistically," Hicklin said.
That's all Robert Hicklin had to go on originally, that the paintings weren't right stylistically, but he did have access to a suspect painting. "In August of 1994, dealer Rick Simons [pronounced Simmons] of Columbia, his shop is the I. Pickney Simons Gallery, bought a painting from Charles Heller for nine thousand five hundred dollars. Simons brought it to me to sell, and I told him it was a fake.
"He didn't want to believe it, naturally, so I recommended he send it to John Fowler, who was working on the catalogue raisonné on Walker. Well, he sent it to John, and John agreed with me that it's a fake, and John questioned the same funky yellow color in the painting that had bothered me."
Hicklin arranged for that painting, Harvesting the Crop, to be sent to James Martin of the Williamstown Art Conservation Center in Williamstown, Massachusetts, and later to Susan Lake, a chemist at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., for chemical analysis of the paint.
James Martin, who now operates Orion Analytical in Williamstown, which investigates the authenticity and age of a number of materials and whose customers include the F.B.I., came up with some intriguing facts. "There were coarse aggregates on the surface, an unmixed pigment, alizarin crimson, that I'd never seen before in my thirteen years of examining paintings."
The suspect painting contained a yellow pigment known as PY3. "That pigment wasn't manufactured in Europe until 1911, it wasn't mentioned in artist's handbooks until the 1920's, and it wasn't in general use in the U.S. until the mid-to-late 1940's," Martin said.
Walker died in January 1921.
Later, Martin studied a group of 15 paintings, ten suspect and five authentic. Martin discovered that the suspect Walkers were painted with zinc white paint, while the genuine Walkers had lead white. Both were correct for the period concerned, but it was a marker differentiating one group from another. The key factor was that all of the suspect paintings contained PY3.
"I was able to provide a painting with impeccable provenance," Hicklin said. "I purchased it from William Aiken Walker's brother's grandson, along with other Walker material. The painting was dated October 22, 1918, which was very much toward the end of Walker's career. Coincidentally, it had a great deal of yellow pigment in it. So if Walker was using PY3, he would have used it to produce this picture in 1918."
There was no PY3 in the 1918 painting.
A short time after Simons showed Hicklin his Walker, Charles Heller showed up in Spartanburg with two William Aiken Walker paintings to sell, and he brought them to Robert Hicklin.
"Heller said he was a vitamin salesman," Robert Hicklin said. "Apparently, before he'd gone to prison he was a real fat boy. He'd worked out, and he's a pretty imposing figure now. When he sat opposite my desk in Spartanburg he looked sort of straight ahead, and I could only see him in profile.
"The chair was with its back perpendicular to the wall, so he looked straight ahead to across me. And he would flex his muscles. He's a real weird character. "I said I wasn't interested in them and that I thought they were fake. Later I was telling someone about them, and when I mentioned Heller's name, they said, `Oh my goodness, that's the guy who sold the fake Heade several years ago.' I called the F.B.I. then."
(One has to go way back in time to find a connection between artist Martin Johnson Heade and Charles Heller, but one does exist. In the transcript of a F.B.I. debriefing on April 23, 1980, Charles Heller told agents that a confederate had signed the name "Head" (sic) to a painting that was then given to Jerrold Schuster, who in turn gave it to Al Singer, who passed it to a confederate, who sold it in New York City for between $80,000 and $90,000.
Heller stated that Singer had in turn given Schuster six checks for a total of $54,000 and that he [Heller] "had personally observed Schuster cash one of the $9000 checks...." Schuster was convicted of fraud in 1980; Singer was named again in a 1983 F.B.I. document.)
The F.B.I. instructed dealer Rick Simons in Columbia, South Carolina, to follow up his contact with Charles Heller, who at that time lived in Brooklyn, New York. Heller had told Simons that he had a dozen or so of the Walkers, all of which had come from an estate in California.
The case really firmed up when the F.B.I. tapped Simons's phone (with his permission), and Heller called and offered two more paintings. That action made Heller liable to a charge of wire fraud if the paintings could be proved to be fake and Heller was aware they were fakes at the time of the call. On December 20, 1994, Heller shipped the two paintings to Simons by Federal Express.
Robert Hicklin described what happened then. "Heller overnights the two pictures to Rick, the F.B.I. puts them in a car, puts the blue light on top, and rushes them ninety miles to Spartanburg. I look at them and tell them they're not real, they're not legitimate."
Charles Heller was arrested by the F.B.I. on January 6, 1995.
The Charges and Trial
On January 4, 1995, a federal grand jury in Columbia, South Carolina, indicted Charles Heller on two charges of fraud involving selling counterfeit art. Just days before the trial was scheduled to begin on May 15, 1995, U.S. Attorney Dean Ichelberger decided not to pursue the charges, and the case was dismissed without prejudice.
Heller, however, had been on probation in New York. One of the probation terms was that he couldn't leave the state without permission. He would spend 10½ months in prison for his South Carolina visit.
Four years passed, and the date for prosecution mandated by the statute of limitations approached. The U.S. Attorney's office in Columbia reassessed the evidence and reopened the case.
The chief of the criminal division, Robert Jendron, explained what led to the decision. Jendron noted that Rick Simons had paid $9500 for the fake in 1994, and said, "We have certain prosecution guidelines as far as fraud amounts, and they're usually higher than that. That certainly had some consideration as far as the initial decision on that [the decision not to prosecute in 1995], but the F.B.I. came back to us and said we would like to pursue this matter and we have other fake paintings, so we took another look at it."
The U.S. Attorney would eventually corral a total of ten paintings to offer as evidence at the trial. "We had ten paintings with a solid chain of evidence leading to Charles Heller, eight that he'd sold, and two linked to partners," Assistant U.S. Attorney Beth Drake said on May 1. She did not identify the partners at that time.
The trial began in Columbia on Monday, April 24. Rick Simons testified that day, as did the buyer of another of the suspect paintings, a pharmacist from Mississippi named Robert Mays. On November 11, 1994, Mays had sent Heller a cashier's check for $5000 for a painting the prosecution called Cabin Scene 2.
Robert Hicklin was the third witness. Hicklin was declared an expert witness and was about to give further evidence on Tuesday when, at midday, Heller, through his attorney, offered to plead to the charge of Withholding Evidence on a Crime if the fraud charges were dropped. The judge accepted the plea, and the trial was over. The witnesses waiting to testify about the paintings, including several New York City dealers and materials scientist James Martin, had been muted.
The Gang That Ordered, Made, and Sold W.A. Walkers
On May 1 we asked Robert Jendron, chief of the criminal division at the Columbia U.S. Attorney's office, about some names that surfaced in the course of researching this story.
Manny Marin? "We were prepared to call a witness by the name of Manny Marin, about whether Mr. Heller had obtained paintings from him or not," Jendron said.
Richard Vitrano? "He was a potential witness too. He didn't appear because Mr. Heller changed his plea. He would have been called had we proceeded," Jendron said.
Those names are central to the story of the manufacture and sale of the fraudulent William Aiken Walkers.
At a hearing held in Columbia, South Carolina, on April 11, Richard Vitrano was questioned by Assistant U.S. Attorney Beth Drake before Judge Dennis W. Shedd. Vitrano was represented by John Hare, an assistant federal public defender.
From a transcript of that hearing, interviews, and other sources comes an intriguing story of wholesale art fraud on a scale few imagined possible.
Richard Vitrano, born Richard Michael Rubin and at various times known as Richie Vitrano, Richie Rubin, Richard Hill, Richard Saunders, Timothy Richie, and Scott Marcus, was serving three concurrent sentences involving stolen and fraudulent art in the spring of 2000. He was being held in the Lexington County (South Carolina) Detention Center when the FBI picked him up and transported him to the Columbia courtroom for the April interview.
Vitrano was convicted in the Southern District of New York of interstate transportation of stolen paintings and other art objects and convicted in the Middle District of Florida and in New York state for art fraud. The latter conviction produced an 18-month sentence in 1999 resulting from the sale of a fake Edward Willis Redfield to a New York City buyer.
Richard Vitrano grew up in New York City, also the home of childhood friend Jerrold (Jerry) Schuster. Schuster and Vitrano joined resources to open an auction business in the mid-1970's. "As time went on the gallery became more successful, and Jerrold Schuster became fairly prominent in the art world of New York City," Vitrano testified in April 2000.
The "gallery" eventually became the New Windsor Auction Gallery in Rockland County, New York. By the time Maine Antique Digest covered a sale there in September 1982, the gallery was offering a number of paintings with questionable signatures and attributions.
Our reporter, Andrew Decker, spotted a watercolor signed "W.M. Chase" that brought $900, a 1909 oil attributed to Thomas Moran that sold for $5000, an oil signed "A.T. Britcher [sic]" that sold for $500, and several other suspect paintings.
Jerrold Schuster was convicted of mail fraud and using interstate transportation to defraud in 1980. Among other charges, the prosecution stated that he bought an unsigned painting of two rabbits and sold it with an "A.F. Tate" signature for $1200 (the signature should have been "A.F. Tait"). He faked an N.C. Wyeth, an F.E. Church, and even a Norman Rockwell. According to the U.S. Attorney's office, roughly 50% of the art sold at Schuster's auctions were forgeries.
Richard Vitrano first met Charles Heller in 1975. Like Vitrano, Heller had a number of aliases, including Richie Vitrano. In fact, Vitrano and Heller appear to have used each other's names at various times during their long association, especially on those occasions when the friendship became strained.
Vitrano and Heller liked to gamble, but that required cash. As Vitrano testified, "We turned to alternative means to try to get money. Most of that involved fraudulent activities involving art."
Heller made extensive East Coast road trips from 1978 to 1980. He bought a staggering amount of antiques and art with stolen checks and credit cards. He wrote $4400 worth of bad checks to Providence, Rhode Island, auctioneer Nino Scotti in 1978. Scotti contacted the F.B.I. and followed the trail of other bad checks until it led to Heller's arrest at a Tampa, Florida, airport in June 1980. All told, Heller bounced somewhere in the neighborhood of $150,000 worth of bad checks on his trips.
Heller was convicted of interstate transportation of stolen goods on October 16, 1980, and sentenced to three years in prison. He served some of it in Danbury, Connecticut. He was out in 18 months and back on the bad check and stolen credit card trail shortly thereafter.
On July 31, 1982, he wrote bad checks to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, auctioneer George Young in the amount of $5060. On October 2, 1982, Heller bought a J.G. Brown painting titled Obedience from the Ira Spanierman Gallery in New York City with a bad check (in a 1983 F.B.I. debriefing, Heller admitted to later selling the painting for $12,500).
Heller bought several pieces of Tiffany and Gallé glass from Renee Antiques and, one day later, bought a Thomas Hill painting from the Trisdonn Gallery in Nyack, New York. All were purchased with bad checks. A fair-haired man and a young woman accompanied Heller on one of his New York excursions.
In December 1982 Heller's route took him through the South and into the Southwest, where the law eventually caught up with him again. Heller used two aliases in 1982, Sam Orenstein and James Fanning. Fanning was a for-real innocent victim who had the extreme misfortune of having his stolen credit cards and checks end up in the hands of Charles Heller.
In 1983 Heller pleaded guilty to a charge of using fraudulent checks to purchase antiques and art in New England and New York in 1982. His Southwest trip resulted in a fraud conviction in Arizona in early 1984.
By the time the second half of the 1980's rolled around, Vitrano, Schuster, and Heller had concentrated their efforts in New York City. They'd developed an extremely lucrative business.
They bought fakes from Manuel (also known as Emanuel) Marin of Dumont, New Jersey, and either rolled them through Schuster's auction house, or sold them to unsuspecting art collectors. Spanish-born Manuel Marin was convicted of fraud in the U.S. Southern District of New York in 1999, according to the F.B.I.
Marin had agreed to cooperate in Heller's trial in exchange for sentencing considerations. Marin faces paying $6 million in restitution resulting from that 1999 conviction.
"Mr. Marin was probably the most prolific art counterfeiter in the New York City area in the '80s," Richard Vitrano testified at the April 2000 hearing. At first Marin brought paintings to them, but by the late 1980's they went to him for bulk-quantity purchases. "Who was with you when you bought them [from Marin in 1988-89]?" Assistant U.S. Attorney Beth Drake asked Richard Vitrano. "Charles Heller, Jerry Schuster," he answered.
About Manny Marin's house, Vitrano said, "I saw in his living room and in some of the other rooms he had like a museum style display. He had over 100 paintings on display, museum style...Basically every one in the house was counterfeit...We were amazed at the availability of so many paintings in one place...We were actually kind of tickled to see that many available, and we knew the profit potential to come back at other times."
Vitrano, Heller, and Schuster bought paintings at five to ten percent of retail prices.
"We had to add the `g' to [make it] de Kooning rather than de Koonin."
What paintings did they buy at their first visit to Marin's? (The spelling of some artists' names have been corrected here because of the court reporter's errors.)
"We bought a [Guy Pène] Du Bois, Thomas Hart Benton, a William Aiken Walker, a Warhol, we bought a [Pierre] Lesieur. We bought a Hans Hoffman, which was the larger one. We bought a [A.F.] Tait. We bought a Henry Farney...Most of the paintings we bought were small because we were selling them through the New York Times. We weren't selling much more than ten [thousand dollars] or 15,000 or 20,000 at the top. That was a good vehicle to do it that way.
"We took all the paintings back to my house...I think within a week we sold the first painting...the Thomas Hart Benton." Vitrano thought the Benton brought between $15,000 and $20,000. The buyer was a U.N. delegate or employee.
The group didn't just sell faked paintings. In 1990 they arranged an insurance scam (for which they were later convicted) on an express company involving a deliberately damaged fake Edward Borein oil on canvas they sent to a California confederate.
Some of the fakes were of less than museum quality.
Vitrano remembered a fake Willem de Kooning that he and Heller bought. They owned it for a while before they realized Manuel Marin had misspelled de Kooning's name.
"We had to take it back to John Paul, who was the person who worked in the [New Windsor] gallery who used to add the signatures," Vitrano said. "We had to add the `g' to [make it] de Kooning rather than de Koonin."
The de Kooning was advertised in the Chicago Tribune and sold for $6000 or $7000, Vitrano added.
"The dynamics of the relationship between Charles Heller and myself is I was more or less the person who had the idea, and Charles Heller was the person who did the actual nuts and bolts of the actual getting of the money or delivering the painting, things of that nature," Richard Vitrano said.
Eventually, the testimony came around to the artist who painted the Walkers. That artist has never been charged. "What did [the artist] paint...for you?" Assistant U.S. Attorney Beth Drake asked Vitrano in April 2000. "She did William Aiken Walker almost exclusively," he answered.
Richard Vitrano described the connection between [the artist] and the others. "Well, Jerry Schuster and John Paul, who was a couple years younger than Jerry Schuster, and myself went to high school with [the artist]...We were aware of the fact that she had talent. I think Jerry Schuster or John Paul approached her and asked if she wanted to make some extra money. Of course she did.
"She started out doing copies for us that were unsigned in the style of William Aiken Walker. John Paul would add the William Aiken Walker signatures...Eventually she was signing them herself."
"With her name?" Judge Dennis Shedd asked.
"No, with the William Aiken Walker signatures," was Vitrano's answer.
"How much was she paid?" Drake asked.
"Originally very little, $200, $300, $400. As the years went on and the sizes increased and the value of Walker increased, she was getting upwards in the thousands," Vitrano said.
"How do you know what you are telling me?" Drake asked Vitrano.
"I was there when Jerry Schuster would commission the paintings to [the artist]," he answered.
Richard Vitrano described how the fakes were produced. "We would find an auction catalog or academic catalog, or some kind of book of a particular artist, not limited to Walker, but in this case we are talking about Walker. We would find a canvas that was similar in size to the piece that was in the catalog. We would buy the canvas. It had to be 60, 70, 80, 100 years old. The framing had to be similar to the style that Walker used in his original frames."
Judge Dennis Shedd asked Vitrano, "Would she use paints with pigments that were available a hundred years earlier?" Vitrano answered, "It wasn't that sophisticated, Judge. She was just using pigments that were available in the Grumbacker [sic] art store, or any art store in the metropolitan New York area."
When Heller was questioned by the FBI in 1995 about the suspect Walkers sold during his 1994 selling spree, he first said he'd had the paintings for about four years and had obtained them from someone in California. Later, he stated he'd bought ten Walkers from Manuel Marin for $32,000 cash. He did not get a bill of sale, any documents, or a provenance as a result of the sale.
There is another version of how Heller could have came into possession of the Walkers. Assistant U.S. Attorney Beth Drake stated in a March 27 document that Richard Vitrano would give testimony at Heller's trial that various counterfeit paintings were stolen by Heller from Vitrano's apartment while Vitrano was in jail.
If that is so, and the Walkers were part of Heller's booty, it explains why Vitrano would send a letter, written on lined yellow paper and dated March 14, 2000, from his jail cell in Lexington to the U.S. Attorney's office in Columbia and offer to testify about his and Heller's part in the Walkerforgeries.
How the Forgeries Were Marketed
Richard Vitrano has been convicted of art fraud and has admitted to money market fraud. As a convicted felon, his testimony is suspect. For the same reasons, Charles Heller's testimony is equally suspect, but some aspects of their testimony can be verified.
Richard Vitrano told federal prosecutors that he'd sold fake William Aiken Walkers to the "Morton Gallery" in New Orleans. The actual name was Morton's Auction Exchange until June 1984 and Morton M. Goldberg Auction Galleries after that and up to its bankruptcy and dissolution in 1996.
Certain New Orleans galleries had a history of offering bad William Aiken Walkers, but the first batch to be publicly identified as such appeared at the Morton M. Goldberg Auction Gallery at its Annual Louisiana Purchase Auction on October 28, 1989. Our reporter, Priscilla St. Germain, noted in our January 1990 issue that two "Walkers" had been identified as fake by Goldberg's art expert Gene Daymude. One of the paintings had a $10,000/12,000 estimate.
Charles Heller claimed he'd sold a Walker painting to New York City art dealer Gerold Wunderlich that had been proven authentic. In fact, if the April 2000 trial had continued, the prosecution would have shown that Charles Heller sold a purported Walker titled The Cotton Field to Gerold Wunderlich at New York City's Gerold Wunderlich & Co. on July 5, 1994. Heller asked $15,000 for that painting.
Wunderlich, who now works with the Gerald Peters Gallery, asked about title, copied Heller's driving license, and cut two checks (for $3000 and $12,000) to Heller. After Wunderlich spoke with Robert Hicklin and John Fowler (who was assembling the catalogue raisonné on Walker) on July 7, 1994, he became concerned about the painting's authenticity.
Wunderlich attempted to stop payment on the checks, but one had already been cashed. Heller demanded the payment be completed. "Heller is a very smooth guy, he's beaten every dealer I know...He's a pro, he knows the lingo," Wunderlich said.
Wunderlich's legal adviser told him he should probably comply with the demand.
"At that point, no one had concrete proof that certain Walkers were bad," Wunderlich said. "Cynthia Seibels, who used to work for me and wrote the book on Walker, believed they were correct, so what were we to do? I knew I was getting taken at the point I was writing the final checks."
Wunderlich had bought a purported Walker at an earlier auction at William Doyle Galleries. The June 1, 1994, sale was mentioned in the trade press, which probably drew Heller to Wunderlich. Comin' from Market had been consigned to Doyle's by a Heller confederate, according to Assistant U.S. Attorney Beth Drake in a March 27 document. The fatal flaw identifying that painting had nothing to do with paint pigment or canvas age.
Some genuine William Aiken Walker paintings depict a rickety sharecropper's cabin with a leaning chimney propped in place with wooden sticks (see pages 112 and 136 of The Sunny South). Robert Hicklin told Wunderlich the reason for the sticks and leaning chimneys. In case of a chimney fire, a frequent occurrence with chimneys built with logs and inferior mortar material, the sticks could be removed to make the burning chimney fall away from the cabin, but the chimney had to be leaning away from the cabin for that to happen.
The purported Walker that Wunderlich bought from Doyle's in June 1994 showed the chimney straight and the sticks leaning against it. "The painter of that picture did not understand the reason for these sticks," Wunderlich said. Again, Cynthia Seibels initially believed the painting genuine.
"I've probably seen six hundred Walkers with cabin and chimneys," Robert Hicklin said in mid-May, "and in ninety-nine out of a hundred, the chimneys lean. In the ten fakes collected by the F.B.I., those numbers were reversed—nine chimneys were straight, and only one leaned."
Wunderlich was stuck with the $15,000 Walker he'd bought directly from Heller but not the Doyle's purchase. "I returned it to Doyle," Wunderlich said. "Doyle got stuck with that picture."
On July 26, 1994, three weeks after the Wunderlich purchase, Heller contacted Cynthia Seibels and gave her two Walker paintings to authenticate. One day later, Seibels authenticated The Cabin and The Possum Hunter for a fee of $200 each.
Cynthia Seibels, who now works at New York City's Hollis Taggart Galleries, spoke about that period in 1994. "I saw nothing to arouse suspicion in my mind that I can recall. They weren't top-quality paintings, but then Walker didn't always turn out masterpieces. I remember that they were very well done, on older artist's material. I remember seeing one with a canvas supplier's label that was very genuine."
On August 2, 1994, a week after getting the statements from Seibels, Heller brought the paintings to Alexander Acevedo of New York City's Alexander Gallery. Heller showed the authenticity letters from Seibels and sold the paintings to Acevedo for $10,500. According to Assistant U.S. Attorney Beth Drake, they have since been resold at least twice.
Those paintings are among the ten the South Carolina authorities collected as evidence. On September 1, 1994, Charles Heller consigned a purported Walker, Two Cotton Pickers, to South Bay Auctions in East Moriches, New York. On September 30 the painting sold for $3700. "It was consigned by Charles Heller, who had consigned one painting to us in the past," confirmed the co-owner of South Bay Auctions, Isette Talpe, wife of co-owner Henry Broggi.
"We sold it for three hundred dollars under the reserve and paid the consignor the difference," Talpe said. "The buyer was a Florida dealer who later took it to a show. The man who specialized in fake Walkers [Robert Hicklin] saw it there and told the dealer it was a suspect painting.
"The buyer told us, and we took it right back and refunded his price in full. We sent a letter to the consignor, but, of course, we never heard from him again." Talpe was waiting to testify in the South Carolina courtroom when Charles Heller made his plea and ended the case.
On October 4, 1994, Charles Heller consigned a purported Walker, described as Cabin Scene 3, to Christie's in New York City. Christie's American paintings specialist Andrew Schoelkopf sent a transparency of the painting to John Fowler, who gave an opinion that it was a suspect painting. On November 22 Schoelkopf informed Heller of that fact, and the painting was retrieved by Heller on November 25.
Schoelkopf, who is now the CEO ofonview.com, refused to confirm or deny the account. "I don't want to be quoted or to comment on this matter," he said on May 18. The events, however, described above were contained in a "Notice of Intent to Use Evidence" filed on February 18.
Doyle's sold another problem Walker in 1994, and this one went to a well-known New York City art collector. Levee at New Orleans was consigned to Doyle's by Jerrold Schuster, but the consignment papers were made out in the name of his daughter, Jill Schuster, according to Alan Fausel, director of paintings at Doyle's. The painting, lot 88 in the November 9, 1994, auction, sold to collector Kip Forbes (of theForbes magazine family) for $51,750 (including buyer's premium).
"That painting contained the same anomalies observed in other Charles Heller associated paintings," Assistant U.S. Attorney Beth Drake stated in mid-May 2000.
Dealer Gerold Wunderlich said he was in the audience at Doyle's on November 9, 1994, when Levee at New Orleans was hammered down at $45,000. "Charles Heller was there too, and after the painting sold, he had to leave the gallery he was laughing so hard," Wunderlich said. "Another dealer and I tried to tell Katherine Doyle it was a bad painting at the time, but Doyle's experts insisted it was right."
Gerold Wunderlich said, "If that painting had been right, it would have brought over one hundred thousand dollars. "There were some things that were good about it," Wunderlich continued. "It was on period canvas, and the stretchers and nails were right, but when you considered the Charles Heller connection and put it together with others of his, it became obvious they were all related. I sent the two I had, and Kip Forbes let us take his, together with an absolutely right one, and we sent them all to Williamstown [Massachusetts] for X-ray analysis. The absolutely right one was markedly different from the others."
"The experts recanted," Doyle's director of paintings Alan Fausel explained. "When it came in we had reservations because of the consignor. We took photos and sent them to John Fowler, who replied that it looked absolutely right to him. We got a call from Robert Hicklin after the catalog came out, indicating his questions about it. On his advice, we showed it to Cynthia Seibels. She said it appeared okay.
"Once we heard rumors it was bad after it had sold, we held up concluding the sale while we had tests done on it by Tom Yost. He said it was okay. Then, eighteen months later, the news finally came that it was a bad painting. We took care of our buyer, of course. When faced with reality, we always do the right thing."
An obviously rueful Alan Fausel said Doyle's was not interested in cataloging any more Walker paintings.
In December 1994 Heller attempted to sell two more suspect paintings to Rick Simons, the FBI entered the case, and the flood of fake William Aiken Walkers was finally halted.
The U.S. Attorney's office evidently felt safer in accepting a guilty plea from Charles Heller to Withholding Evidence on a Crime than producing the evidence detailed above to prove the two counts of fraud. As Assistant U.S. Attorney Beth Drake said, "Anytime you get a conviction in a case like this, you have to feel good about it."
Heller could be back in the courtroom in Columbia for sentencing in late spring, but a summer date is more realistic. Anyone who thinks fake Walkers were confined to the few auction houses and/or dealers named in this article is very wrong. Richard Vitrano claimed to have sold fake Walkers to a Georgetown, Washington, D.C., gallery, as well as to a Philadelphia art dealer. Vitrano indicates that Charles Heller sold to other dealers.
Those purported sales cannot be independently verified, but Robert Hicklin has a desk drawer in his Spartanburg office that's devoted to auction catalogs and ads, dealers' offers, and photos and documents relating to other bogus Walkermaterial. Richard Vitrano was asked by Judge Shedd in April, "Is the authentic art world very concerned about fraudulent art because it threatens to destroy the whole market?"
Vitrano answered, "That is a very good question, Judge...I believe 30 to 40 percent of all the paintings that are sold in major galleries today are either misattributed or fraudulent in nature one way or another. It could go back to the 14th and 15th century, and some of it is modern contemporary fraud."
What was the allure of the paintings the gang sold?
"A lot of these paintings we only paid five or ten percent. Most of the paintings we were selling weren't retail value. We were selling less than wholesale."
Judge Shedd: "So the people thought they were getting a deal?"
Vitrano: "Yes, Judge...A lot of these people were making millions of dollars in real estate or in other fields, and they couldn't believe that somebody who was less educated or less successful would be able to pull the wool over their eyes...."
If there is a lesson coming out of the Charles Heller/William Aiken Walker affair, perhaps it's that when you buy a painting through an auction or a reputable dealer, you can usually get your money back if it's later discovered to be a fake. When you buy from a private seller at a bargain price, it can turn out to be no bargain at all.
Editors Note: this problem has not gone away, perhaps in a quest for notoriety, "former" forger Ken Perenyi has been doing the circuit of television and print, as if his misdeeds in the art market somehow render him some sort of talent in fooling buyers most in the media do not find sympathetic. An unfortunate side effect of the Obama Administrations class warfare, property crime was ignored by the Department of Justice in favour of micromanaging selective police shootings in dangerous neighborhoods. With a new sherrif in town this January, it may be safely assumed, basic law and order will return to being a priority of law enforcement.
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