Faked out

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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.

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Annabelle Massey Helber