Validity of French Paintings Doubted : FBI Inquiry Puts Artist, Carmel Galleries to Test
In the beginning, the FBI believed that it was investigating a routine case of art theft. One of Carmel’s largest art galleries had reported several paintings missing from its walls, and two agents arrived to take a report. They debriefed the staff and then segued to the showroom filled with thundering seascapes and bucolic scenes of French villages.
That’s when the surprises began. Agent Richard Lack noticed that the staff seemed to be joking about some of the very expensive art hanging on the walls. Then an assistant manager began to talk openly. She pointed out the peaceful scenes of French villages by Paul Valere--some priced at $18,000--and said they were not painted by Valere at all.
As Lack described the conversation later in court documents, the assistant manager said most likely Paul Valere didn’t even exist. The landscapes actually were painted by teams of artists on an assembly line basis. One would paint the trees, another the chateaux, still another the sky. The conversation in the gallery apparently was light-hearted; Lack said the whole thing was treated as an “inside joke.”
The agents were not amused. They checked on Valere, could find no evidence that he had ever put a brush to canvas, and launched a formal investigation into possible interstate art fraud by Simic Galleries.
FBI investigations are not the normal thing on the charm-driven streets of Carmel, and the potential of scandal here has left the town breathless. The art crowd has become divided into camps, each accusing the other of destroying Carmel’s reputation. Dozens of owners of Paul Valere paintings have called the local district attorney’s office wanting to know if they should sue. Carmel Mayor Jean Grace, asked by a reporter to discuss the investigation, did not return telephone calls.
Meanwhile, officials at Simic Galleries claim that the whole thing is a case of mistaken identity. The conversation between the agents and the assistant manager really was a joke, they say, albeit an ill-timed one. Valere does indeed exist, they contend, and they offer an explanation for the FBI’s failure to locate him: Valere is not the artist’s real name but a pseudonym.
“We could have told the FBI about the pseudonym if they had asked,” said Edward King, a vice president for Simic. “I guess they never thought of that. It wasn’t very sophisticated of them.”
King said even he does not know Valere’s real name, nor does anyone else at Simic. The artist’s identity has been protected by his agent in France, Robert Fruchter, according to gallery executives.
Fruchter has described the artist as an aging and reclusive man who lives in rural France. Even under the heat of an investigation Valere (pronounced Va-lair ) has refused to come to the United States because of a lingering heart ailment, King said. So last month the gallery and Fruchter arranged for Valere to paint a demonstration canvas at his studio in the presence of French authorities.
The demonstration took place before an huissier de justice, an official who witnesses and authenticates questioned events for the French legal system. Simic’s attorney, Phillip J. Daunt, said the documentation from the test arrived last Friday and certifies that an artist identified by Fruchter as Valere completed a painting with no helpers over a three-day period.
This apparently does not satisfy the FBI. The agency has told Simic and Fruchter that it wants a painting test of its own to take place in Paris.
Although FBI officials would not discuss the details, others close to the investigation say the FBI will require the artist to complete the painting in two to three days and will safeguard the canvas each night to assure that no other painter works on it. After completion the painting will be shipped to the United States where experts will decide if the style matches those of Valere paintings sold at Simic.
Fruchter, reached by telephone at his office outside Paris, said the artist is eager to accept the challenge posed by the FBI. The only condition Valere requests, according to Fruchter, is permission to conduct the painting test at his hideaway studio in rural France rather than Paris.
Location Under Negotiation
“There will be great stress during this period,” Fruchter said. “So he is asking that he be able to use his own studio where the conditions are familiar. You must understand he is not only being asked to paint but to paint within a certain time frame. He must know how quickly the paint will dry and what the light conditions will be. All these things become very important.”
The question of where the painting takes place is still in negotiation.
There is reason for the FBI’s continued skepticism. In its initial investigation, the two agents sought to find the artist by using biographical information contained in a Simic brochure.
The brochure began, “Born in the Loire Valley in 1928, Valere has dedicated his artistic career to painting the antiquated villages and towns most familiar to him.” It went on to describe his education at the Ecole de Beaux-Arts in Tours and his several awards for painting, including the “Medaille d’Or du Salon d’Automne.”
Medal Does Not Exist
According to documents on record in federal court in San Jose, the two agents discovered there was no record of Valere’s attendance at the Ecole, a discrepancy that could be explained by the artist’s use of a pseudonym. In addition, however, the agents found that no one could have won the “Medaille d’Or” because it does not exist.
“The Salon d’Automne does not nor ever has awarded a ‘Medaille d’Or,’ ” said a brief by the U.S. attorney’s office, filed in response to an unsuccessful court action by Simic seeking to limit the investigation.
Fruchter, who supplied the information for the brochure, concedes that there were some “inaccuracies,” including Valere’s birth date. Fruchter now says Valere was born in 1923, five years earlier than stated in the brochure.
One of the most intriguing conditions imposed by the FBI on the upcoming paint-off is the two- to three-day time limit for completing the painting. Apparently the agency wants to determine if the artist can paint his canvases as fast as Simic Galleries have been selling them. By all accounts it is a heated pace.
90 Works a Year
Simic, which also operates galleries in Beverly Hills and La Jolla, has estimated that it sells about 90 new Valere paintings a year under an exclusive U.S. sales contract with the painter. Fruchter put the number at 100 per year. Assuming that the 65-year-old artist works five days a week and takes a one-month vacation each year, that means Valere must be capable of cranking out an original oil painting every 2 1/2 days.
If the elderly painter cannot meet the pace in the FBI test, then the agency may wonder if he has some help with production. At Simic, Vice President King said he is not worried about Valere’s performance. “When people buy a work of art, they naturally want to believe that the artist slaved for a long period. The truth is that many of our artists can turn out a painting in one day or two,” he said.
However the Valere affair turns out, it is not likely to end a long-simmering battle over the way some galleries sell what they describe as fine art. In the last decade, the number of galleries in Carmel has exploded as interest in art has blossomed among the town’s upper-middle-class visitors. As business has boomed, some of the galleries have become big businesses. In the case of Simic Galleries, for example, the Valere paintings sell for prices between $2,000 and $18,500. With an average price of $8,000, Valere’s 100 paintings per year generate a revenue of $800,000. And of course, Valere is only one of several dozen artists whose work Simic sells.
Since its founding in Carmel in 1981, Simic has become known as one of the most aggressive and successful of the newer art galleries. It sprawls through several buildings downtown, and Simic officials say their business has doubled every year for the last three years. King said gallery revenues have grown from about $8,000 a month in the early years to $1 million a month.
The works offered by these larger, more commercial galleries are difficult to categorize. They are expensive--$20,000 price tags are not unusual--and clearly have little to do with the mainstreams of modern or contemporary art. Seascapes with crashing surf are popular, as are Paris street scenes done in a nostalgic style borrowed from the 19th Century. One gallery owner referred to it as “traditional” art.
Whatever it is, large galleries sell their wares with tactics that some smaller operators in Carmel regard as manipulative at best and at times unethical. Chief among these tactics is the use of the so-called “duplicate original.” Such a painting is a copy of a popular canvas, usually done by the artist himself; essentially the artist paints the same work two or three or more times. Duplicates are usually displayed and sold one at a time, however, implying that they are unique.
There is nothing illegal in the use of duplicate originals, nor is it improper, according to many gallery owners. At Simic, King said many of the customers expressly ask for a repainting of a canvas they have seen elsewhere because they want the same painting.
But dissenting artists and gallery owners in Carmel have organized to resist the use of duplicate originals and other tactics that, in their minds, undermine the credibility of the town’s art market.
“There has been a lot of false advertising. There has been a lot of art labeled as one thing when it’s actually something else,” said James Ogle, owner of Ogle Gallery and co-founder of the Carmel Gallery Assn., which favors full disclosure of an artwork’s background.
Others say the gallery wrangle is also a matter of taste. “They’re selling expensive junk, and they use tactics like car salesmen,” said one saleswoman who spoke on condition that she not be identified. “I mean, the salesmen there will slip up behind the customers, lower the lights with a dimmer switch, and make some asinine remark about the painting looking better with ‘sunset light.’ Sunset light! And do you know I now get customers coming in this gallery all the time asking where my dimmer switches are?”
During Clint Eastwood’s first year as mayor in 1986, an attempt was made to persuade the City Council to crack down on the failure of some galleries to disclose all background information on a painting, such as the existence of a duplicate. Patty Adams, a witness at the hearing, described her own unwitting involvement in the sale of a duplicate original when she worked for one of the larger galleries.
A young couple came into the gallery, she said, and purchased what was purported to be an original oil painting of a Parisian street scene for about $2,000. According to a transcript of the council meeting, Adams then related the following:
“The couple was pleased and excited and walked out the door with their painting and the owner of the gallery--it makes me just furious to remember it--walked downstairs and placed another painting on the same spot on the wall, the same artist, the same scene, the same title. . . . I was just shocked.”
After the council meeting, the city did send letters to all gallery owners reminding them of a state requirement to post notices telling customers they were entitled to various information on artworks being offered for sale. But Ogle and other critics say the impact on gallery tactics has been minimal.
Dispute Has Gotten Nasty
At various times the dispute has gotten nasty. Several years ago, fish emulsion was poured into the flower boxes outside the Simic gallery and about the same time a battered van was parked outside the gallery’s front door, its sides emblazoned with the slogan, “Carmel, Art Fraud Capital.”
Michael Andrews, a supporter of the smaller galleries, said he was the perpetrator of both guerrilla actions. The van was parked to warn customers of the dangers, and the fish emulsion was poured, he said, “to demonstrate that Simic’s business practices stink.”
The larger gallery owners have not been quiet about all this. Last month Mario Simic, owner of Simic Galleries, sent a letter to other owners that referred to the criticism as an “unjust and vicious attack.”
“It was initiated by a small group of disgruntled individuals who have been discrediting and defaming our whole community for the last couple of years,” he wrote.
Matter of Sour Grapes
Privately, other gallery owners have said the resentment by smaller galleries is largely a matter of sour grapes. The big galleries are successful, they say, and the smaller galleries less so. “Growth and progress is not an indication of dishonesty,” one said.
Should the paint-off in France not pass the FBI’s muster, the Carmel dispute could blow into a genuine scandal. Rescheduled several times, the test is supposed to take place within two weeks. Meanwhile, Simic continues to offer Valere paintings for sale, and Valere’s agent predicted that the test will produce vindication.
“He will prove that he is the one and only person to make these paintings,” Fruchter said. “We have nothing to hide.”