Faked out

If it wasn't for bad luck, as the song goes, Gerald Peters wouldn't have no luck at all. The well-known art dealer with galleries in Dallas, Santa Fe, and New York City was recently forced to refund $5 million for a collection of Georgia O'Keeffe paintings he sold to Kansas City businessman and art lover R. Crosby Kemper Jr. after experts determined that the supposedly rare, early works of the noted American artist weren't her works at all.

The Peters Gallery has begun retrieving the paintings from the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City, Missouri, and Peters is launching his own investigation into the December 15 thumbs-down verdict by O'Keeffe scholars. He's trying to get to the bottom of the fake paintings not only to recover the $1 million he originally paid for the 28 works in the "Canyon Suite," but perhaps to save something considerably more priceless -- his reputation.

"Put yourself in Mr. Peters' shoes," one person close to the situation says, speaking on condition of anonymity. "The guy is a famous art dealer and is successful and has handled major artists for decades. Even more, he's recognized for his collection of Georgia O'Keeffe's work. He has everything to lose."

Gerald Peters' spokesperson, Ja Soon Kim, confirmed that Peters has begun an independent investigation. Peters did not return calls for comment.

Cracks first began to show in Peters' three-city empire last fall when his Dallas gallery director, Talley Dunn, jumped ship and took most of Gerald Peters Gallery's artists and some collectors with her. Dunn then sued the respected dealer for $1.4 million, seeking to invalidate the noncompetition clause in her employment contract and recover unpaid commissions she says he owes her, as well as damages. Peters recovered quickly by selling half of his Dallas business to former Kimbell Art Museum director Ted Pillsbury, creating Pillsbury and Peters Fine Art.

Gallery insiders realized Dallas had been third on Peters' list of priorities, anyway, after his museum-sized Santa Fe, New Mexico, gallery and his New York location. He seldom was seen in Dallas, but that was easily explained by the fact that his main office was in Santa Fe and if he wasn't "out of town," he wasn't doing his job. Peters, a self-described "peddler," travels the world in search of art, patronizing and pacifying the art world's elite -- collectors, artists, art critics, and museum directors. Criticized for putting "salesmanship and promotion" above scholarship, Peters has called himself "a little old art dealer," who is as happy to sell "cowboys and Indians" as he is to amass what is reported to be the world's largest collection of O'Keeffe paintings.

One of the collectors wooed by Peters was philanthropist and banker Kemper, who bought 24 of the "Canyon Suite" paintings from Peters in 1993 for $5 million. The following year, Kemper gave the museum he founded the O'Keeffe collection and was lauded at the inaugural exhibition of the paintings in 1994. Images from the "Canyon Suite" are still featured on the museum's Web site (www.kemperart.org). Peters also donated four additional watercolors from the alleged early work, valued at $500,000, to the museum for its permanent collection.

Kemper Museum director Dan Keegan says part of the arrangement for the return of all 28 paintings and the refund of the money precludes him from discussing the situation in the media. The agreement was reached January 21, and since then, Keegan says, none of the parties is talking about it. "I will say a satisfactory agreement has been reached between the Gerald Peters Gallery and the Kemper Museum," Keegan says from his office at the Kemper. "Mr. Peters is honoring his guarantee of the art, and the Peters Gallery has begun the return process as promised, as the 'Canyon Suite' works are not included in the recently published catalogue raisonné," he says.

Peters wants all 28 of the pieces back, sources say, so that a definitive independent investigation can be conducted.

The whole scholarly process of creating the catalogue raisonné of O'Keeffe's work served as the catalyst for the unhappy discovery about the "Canyon Suite" paintings. For seven years, O'Keeffe expert Barbara Buhler Lynes researched the artist's life's work for inclusion in the definitive catalog. Part of the process was a kind of an Antiques Roadshow for the scholar. Lynes would travel to cities in search of possible O'Keeffe works in an effort to include any and all pieces for a complete and credible book. Of the lesser-known or unknown works submitted for inclusion, Lynes omitted 250 potential O'Keeffe paintings when she and her fellow researchers were unable to prove their authenticity.

Lynes enlisted the help of several key staff members at Washington's National Gallery of Art as she worked on the catalog. Ultimately, Judith Walsh, the National Gallery's senior paper conservator; Ruth Fine, the gallery's curator of modern prints and drawings; and Elizabeth Glassman, former director of the O'Keeffe Foundation in Santa Fe, would concur with Lynes that the work couldn't be what Peters believed it to be.