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Not a pretty picture

Times Staff Writer

THEY met in Paris in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower. He was a struggling painter with a tiny apartment in Greenwich Village; she was a ballerina who lived in Marin County and danced in San Francisco.

They married and had two daughters. He became successful enough to make a living with brush and easel. They moved to a tiny farm in Petaluma, where she taught ballet and he painted pricey Irish landscapes and Paris street scenes.

His name was John O’Brien, and cancer took him two years ago at age 53.

Her name is Martha O’Brien, and she was left with a mountain of debt in the aftermath of what law enforcement authorities contend was a widespread fraud. She often wakes up wondering how she will keep her home on the crumbs a ballet teacher makes.

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In Martha’s view, everything probably would have been different if a woman hadn’t come to see John six years ago and persuaded him that there was a fortune to be made in selling high-end prints of his work. As Martha put it, the woman practically guaranteed that “everyone would live happily ever after.”

The woman was Kristine Eubanks, and she ran a printing business in Los Angeles. According to O’Brien, Eubanks proposed to take advantage of a new technology called giclee (pronounced zhee-CLAY), which reproduces art without the telltale dots of color printing. Originals and copies are difficult to tell apart without close examination.

The term derives from the French verb gicler, which means “to squirt” or “to spray.” It’s most commonly used to describe a high-resolution digital process employed in the reproduction of fine art.

John O’Brien was enthusiastic. Martha recalled that Eubanks said she would produce and market high-quality limited edition prints of her husband’s work, which he would sign, and perhaps bring in six figures a year. In the spring of 2000, he began shipping his work south to Eubanks’ print shop.

For a while, it all seemed to be working. The checks arrived on a regular basis, a much-needed steady income.

Then, less than two years later, John began to think that something was amiss. He thought he had signed and numbered each of the prints produced by Eubanks, but nagging little incidents began to make him wonder, Martha said.

A friend called to say he’d seen one of O’Brien’s works for sale on EBay, the huge auction website. But it wasn’t one he’d signed, numbered and embellished, Martha said. To O’Brien’s dismay, cheap knockoffs were finding their way into the art market. Then, according to Martha, he heard that his prints were being sold on Princess Cruise Lines.

In Martha’s retelling, John was quickly losing control of his work. He decided to buy a giclee printing press and have a personal hand in everything, right down to the marketing of his paintings and prints. Essentially, O’Brien was getting rid of Eubanks and starting over.

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“Then he started getting sick,” Martha said.

What followed was two years of treatment for melanoma -- the chemotherapy, the crashing headaches, the withering health. In October 2004, John died at his Petaluma home. He left behind what should have been a source of income for years to come: the ability to reproduce more than 100 original oil paintings.

But as Martha would discover, she didn’t have much. More unauthorized copies surfaced, she said, and sales languished because the market was flooded with reproductions of her husband’s work. As time went on, it became clear to her that there would be little, if any, money coming in from the art left behind.

“John’s worst nightmare has happened,” she said. “We’re completely broke.”

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Then, four months ago, the phone rang. Bob Lauson was on the other end.

Lauson is a lawyer whose office is in the same Manhattan Beach complex where the TV show “CSI: Miami” is filmed. He asked Martha if she knew Kristine Eubanks. And he asked if she knew that hundreds of John O’Brien giclees were being sold on Princess Cruise Lines.

The answer to the first question was yes; the answer to the second was no.

He told Martha that he had been retained by another artist who had done business with Eubanks. There was, he alleged, a larger criminal game afoot.

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CHARLENE Mitchell was the one who had called Lauson. She lives with her retired husband, Pat, in a well-kept, unpretentious house just outside the mountain town of Lake Arrowhead. On days when she paints, Mitchell sets up her easel in the sunny living room.

She specializes in animals, gardens and beach settings. She is particularly noted for her horse-racing art, which takes longer to produce because of the complexity of depicting so many animals in motion.

For years, she simply sold what she painted in galleries or to people who commissioned her work. But she, like O’Brien and so many other artists, was realizing that there was money to be made in the giclee technique. In 2003, while looking through a copy of Art Business News -- a popular trade publication -- Mitchell came across an ad for giclee copying in Van Nuys. One of the owners of the print shop was Eubanks.

Mitchell said she found Eubanks nice enough, and, more to the point, she liked the woman’s ideas about making money. Mitchell said the pitch she heard was much the same one given to O’Brien -- all she had to do was paint and Eubanks would make the copies and market them. And as Mitchell was quick to point out: “Artists are notoriously naive, and I’m no different from the rest. We wanted to mass-produce these things.”

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But not only was Eubanks reproducing art, she was also beginning a television show called “Fine Art Treasures Gallery” on the Dish Network and DirectTV satellite services.

And because Mitchell was well-known within certain circles -- her art has been on display in Las Vegas’ Caesars Palace, for instance -- she became one of the artists whose original work Eubanks auctioned on her show, along with Picassos, Chagalls and Dalis.

Mitchell, 68, said some weeks she received $10,000 from the televised auctions.

But she too began to hear rumblings that prints were being sold without her knowledge, including aboard the Princess line. And then, she recalled, she got a call from a man who said he’d become so enamored of her work while on a Princess cruise that he wanted her to do a portrait of his fiancee and her daughters.

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The trouble was, Mitchell said she told the man, she didn’t know her prints were being sold on board the cruise ships. Yes, the man replied, many were being auctioned off.

The giclees were being sold on the television auction show as well, attorney Lauson said. But Mitchell said no money for those was ever paid to her. Further, she said, Eubanks’ pleasant disposition became less so in the face of more questioning about money.

But it wasn’t only the artists who say they were discovering the difficulties involved in doing business with Eubanks. So were the customers.

Ron Kyle, a then-out-of-work computer technician, discovered the auction program while channel surfing one night. He thought the prints were being sold at a bargain and could be resold for profit. He used a credit card to buy five prints -- two Picassos, two Icarts and a Chagall -- for $9,533.76, though he said they were touted as being worth a little less than $200,000.

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It didn’t take Kyle long to surmise that his purchases were fake. For one, he couldn’t find a trace of the art dealer in Britain who supposedly signed the certificates of authenticity that came with the pieces. For another, he said, the Chagall was signed on the wrong side of the print.

Kyle tried unsuccessfully to get his money back. He has filed suit against “Fine Arts Treasures Gallery” and Eubanks’ firm of the same name in an attempt to recoup his losses. Lauson also sued Eubanks on behalf of O’Brien and Mitchell. The cases are making their way through the courts. Among other things, a hearing will be held Monday on a motion for a default judgment against Eubanks in the Mitchell case.

Longtime art collectors Tom and Mary Ann Cogliano of Santa Rosa, Calif., said they spent more than $50,000 for six pieces on Eubanks’ show. They donated one of the prints, ostensibly by Salvador Dali, to a charity fundraiser, only to have an appraiser declare it phony. Tom checked, and told law enforcement authorities that the rest of the prints were bogus as well.

For him, the worst part was not the money.

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“It made me look foolish, especially with these folks who are my friends -- and here I am with a fake piece of art,” he said. “You’d have to give me a check for a million bucks to go through that kind of embarrassment again.”

Indeed, so many people complained to the Better Business Bureau about Fine Art Treasures Gallery that the consumer agency gave it an F rating.

IN September, a team of investigators from the FBI, the IRS and the Los Angeles Police Department seized 15 bank accounts connected to Eubanks and the art auction show. A source close to the investigation said several million dollars was frozen.

Eubanks was arrested and held without bail. She was already on probation after pleading no contest to using the credit cards of a dead business partner to rack up $144,000 in charges. Tuppence McIntyre, the prosecutor who handled the case, said Eubanks was given probation after agreeing to repay the money. She did so, but one stipulation for staying out of jail was that her record remain spotless.

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The arrest in the art fraud case was enough to revoke the probation. In December, Eubanks was moved to the California Institute for Women in Corona, where she began serving a three-year sentence in the credit card case.

Meanwhile, Princess Cruise Lines spokeswoman Julie Benson said via e-mail that Princess bought the prints “in good faith, believing them to be properly authorized.”

“If these allegations are true,” she wrote, “Princess was victimized, as were the artists in question.” She added that the company would “accept any art returned by dissatisfied customers.”

In a legal document submitted in response to a suit filed by Mitchell, Princess lawyer Brooke Oliver said the cruise line may not have made any money at all because of costs associated with framing, shipping, storage and insurance. And she contended that distribution of the fakes “has enhanced plaintiff’s prestige and reputation and the value of her artwork.”

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Calvin J. Goodman, Los Angeles-based author of the widely used Art Market Handbook, described the investigation as “a very important case.” He wondered how Princess was selling the paintings so cheaply without taking note that something might be amiss.

“Shouldn’t they have been suspicious that the price of the art was so low?” he asked. “They should have known at once.”

Christopher Calarco, a Los Angeles-based FBI agent specializing in art crime, said that the case is continuing and that there is more evidence that investigators cannot yet discuss. He said charges against Eubanks have been unnecessary so far, because she is already in prison. Her lawyer, Donald C. Randolph, said there would be no comment about the allegations.

Investigators said they are hoping they can expand their inquiry to encompass similar alleged scams while spreading the word that buyers should use caution when purchasing art. But even with the warnings, Calarco worries that buyers could go for years not knowing they have fakes on the wall.

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He also described art scams as a “target-rich environment” that’s growing worldwide because of television and the Internet.

“This is a kind of hidden crime with people who have no idea they are victims,” Calarco said. “I couldn’t even hazard a guess as to the number of victims.”

LAST month, Martha O’Brien was preparing her ballet students for the traditional Christmas performance of “The Nutcracker” in Petaluma. She recently had to take out a loan to cover some basic expenses, but she remains resolute that she can fix this problem and that her husband’s paintings will again be worth something.

“It’s his whole lifetime of work that has been damaged,” she said. “I’ve got to clean it up.”

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michael.kennedy@latimes.com


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