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.

Walsh's assessment of the paintings' paper would be particularly convincing. She found that the age of the paper was inconsistent with the 1916-1918 time period during which the works were supposed to have been created and that the types of paper on which the "Canyon Suite" paintings were made were different from the kind O'Keeffe normally used.

National Gallery of Art spokesperson Deborah Ziska says none of the parties involved, including Lynes, will make any statements concerning the controversial project. "We simply made a determination about what would be included in the catalog," Ziska says on behalf of the National Gallery's staff. "To the best of our research to date, the decision was made that these did not conform to the profile of Georgia O'Keeffe's work."

The National Gallery itself figured in some of the controversy, when, in 1993, Fine and National Gallery directors J. Carter Brown and Rusty Powell and other gallery staff reviewed the newly discovered "Canyon Suite," and called them a "treasure." Another National Gallery spokesperson says the gallery's personnel urged Kemper to buy the works from Peters and donate them to the National Gallery.

Before the self-imposed gag order concerning the return and refund, Kemper Museum director Keegan told The Kansas City Star that Kemper bought the works "in part at the urging of some of the very experts who have declared the works unauthentic." Some skeptics have suggested, off the record, that the National Gallery experts could have invalidated the works out of spite because R. Crosby Kemper decided to donate them to his own museum instead.

"That's a fairly ridiculous accusation, if anyone's making it," says one source who requested anonymity. "Barbara Lynes and Ruth Fine are perhaps the top O'Keeffe scholars in the world."

When art scholars consider authenticity of artwork, they study three main areas, according to Dorothy Kosinski, curator at the Dallas Museum of Art. The DMA just closed an exhibition of Georgia O'Keeffe's popular paintings that was visited by 85,000 people during its three-month run. None of the "Canyon Suite" paintings appeared in the traveling exhibition, which originated at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. Kosinski's comments for this article were made strictly as an uninvolved, technical expert on the art-research process in general.

"A scholar may seek out people who are experts on x, y, or z artists. We may consult a conservator to look at the physical aspects of the work, to see if there is anything strange about it or something that does not conform," Kosinski says. "Connoisseurship is essential, knowing an artist's work. Being sufficiently familiar with the work so as to be able to discern whether it's consistent with the style and manner of working. We look for very good documentation and archives, even eye witnesses for the provenance of the work."

Peters was on solid ground on the provenance of "Canyon Suite," and as a noted collector, should have been familiar with O'Keeffe's style. He believed, according to published reports, that the paintings were created while the artist lived in Canyon, Texas, from 1916 to 1918. The story went that O'Keeffe gave the watercolors to her lover Ted Reid in 1918, and that Reid kept them until 1975, when he gave them to Emilio Caballero. Caballero reportedly forgot the packet of paintings until 1987, when he rediscovered them and gave them to his son and daughter-in-law, who was also Reid's granddaughter. The young Caballero couple, after asking O'Keeffe's assistant Juan Hamilton to authenticate the paintings, sold them to Gerald Peters.

Asked whether Peters would seek the return of the $1 million he spent on the paintings, Ja Soon Kim says, "We're not there yet."

Kosinski says part of the process of validating art involves knowledge of an artist's assistant and to what extent he or she is involved with creating work under the artist's direction. "Frequently, you'll look at something and say, well, it's not by John Smith; it's by his studio," Kosinski says. "Artists frequently had assistants, and you'd say, hmmm, maybe somebody touched this up. All researchers look carefully and study the work to feel absolutely and 100 percent certain that it's genuine."

Sure enough, a Santa Fe man claiming to be a former O'Keeffe assistant has surfaced. Jacabo Suazo has filed copyright claims on several watercolors in the "Canyon Suite." Suazo told the Santa Fe Times on February 14 that he lived with the artist for about eight years, beginning at age 10, during the 1940s and '50s. He said O'Keeffe encouraged him to work with her and to create his own works. Suazo identified 13 of the 28 paintings at the Kemper Museum as his collaborations with O'Keeffe.

It's likely Gerald Peters' investigation will leave no stone unturned. Conflicting expert testimony, though, is more common in court than in art. As for what legal steps will be taken if the work turns out to be deliberately forged, Kim says, "Since it hasn't happened, we can't say what the legal remedy would be." Keegan says the refund for the "Canyon Suite" paintings will be used to create an endowment for the Kemper Museum's permanent collection. "It's a really neat thing for this museum. When all is said and done here, our plan is to begin scouting new artwork. That will be the happy ending to this crazy, crazy story."

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Annabelle Massey Helber