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Buyer Beware

A raid on a River North gallery calls attention to a dirty little secret of the art world.

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The usually zipped-up local art world got a jolt two weeks ago when federal agents raided the Kass/Meridian Gallery at 325 W. Superior. It was a surreal scene, with a platoon of U.S. Postal Service police and the FBI lugging framed works by the likes of Chagall and Dalí out into the snowy street. The official explanation, courtesy of an FBI spokesman, is that the agents executed a search warrant as part of an ongoing investigation—there were no arrests made and no charges filed, and documents have been sealed. Kass/Meridian owners Alan and Grace Kass did not return calls; other gallery owners I talked to in the River North district, where Kass/Meridian has been around for 22 years, expressed surprise.

But one longtime local dealer says it was about time someone got on the problem of fakes. Peter Bartlow of Peter Bartlow Gallery, which like Kass/Meridian deals in prints by modern masters, was quoted in the Sun-Times the day after the raid saying he'd told federal investigators a year and a half ago that he thought Kass/Meridian was selling fakes. Over the next few days Bartlow, who has a sideline in authentication, stepped up to talk about fakery in art sales as a widespread problem that has largely gone unaddressed. As for Kass/Meridian: "Over the years," he told me, "clients have brought things in to show me that they bought from Kass that appeared to me to be fake."

One of those clients was graphic designer Gene Haring, who says he and his wife purchased a number of pieces at Kass/Meridian auctions in the 90s, including two signed Matisse drawings. Haring can't remember exactly what he paid, but says it might have been as little as $750 each. "As Alan did with everything that he sold," Haring says, "there were certificates of authenticity. He would always put in writing that these were as represented in the auction catalog." But, he adds, "we were concerned about the authenticity due to some inconsistency in the signature." A few months after the purchase, they showed the works to Bartlow, a good friend. Bartlow gave them the opinion that they were not authentic. At that point, Haring says, "we decided to take Alan up on his standing offer that he would buy back any pieces." They asked Bartlow to handle it, and "we were given back the full purchase price and that was that."

When he returned the drawings, Bartlow says, Kass told him that he couldn't establish the provenance for the works, and "that's why they're so cheap." Drawings without provenance are "virtually worthless," Bartlow notes, but "the real thing would have been about $50,000 each."

Bartlow says he's known Alan Kass since 1973, when Kass sold him some prints for a gallery he had in his hometown of Columbus, Ohio. He says that "Kass has consistently given people their money back if they had a complaint," and nothing more would be heard about it. That's human nature, Bartlow says: "When you get duped, do you want everybody to know? Or do you just want your money back?"

"Everybody wants to think they outsmarted the dealer," Bartlow adds. "And dealers rely on that." The same folly is at work in parts of the auction market, he says. "You'll see these ads in the paper: 'Doctor's Estate for Sale'—they show a picture of a mansion and list the names of the artists. It'll be Pissarro, Miró, Chagall—and then in fine print it'll say the majority of items are from another source. Smart people, clients of mine, will call me all excited. I'll say, 'It's not what you think,' but they want to believe it. They want it to be what they want it to be."

Dealers say the last time a sweep of this magnitude occurred was in 1993, when Donald Austin, a former barber who built a Chicago-based national chain of 30 galleries, was charged with fraud for selling hundreds of fake modern masters' prints. Austin blamed his suppliers, and his lawyer argued that he was just trying to make art affordable for the masses, but he was convicted and sentenced to eight years in prison.

Forgeries are so prevalent, claims Bartlow, that "I think virtually anybody who sells this stuff has sold fakes"—wittingly or unwittingly. Some people in the business "don't want to know enough to identify the phony work," and some don't do their homework. "The attitude is 'don't ask, don't tell.' If they can buy something for two or three thousand dollars and sell it for ten or twelve or fifteen, that's all they want to know." He says several years ago he asked Natalie van Straaten, the executive director of the Chicago Art Dealers Association at the time, if the group would "help do something about the people who are selling fakes," but nothing came of it. (Bartlow is a former CADA member; neither he nor Kass/Meridian is a member now.) Van Straaten couldn't be reached for comment, but former CADA president Roy Boyd says, "Even big museums have bought fakes. I think it's a problem beyond the scope of a small organization like this."

Auction house proprietor Leslie Hindman says she's also been trying for years to call attention to the problem, which she attributes mostly to "a very small number" of disreputable dealers. "We know what to steer clear of," she says. "We're very careful with Miró; we don't sell much Dalí, except very small editions; and if we ever have a question, we don't handle it."

When she does need an outside opinion, Hindman says, Bartlow is one of the experts she turns to. He got into the gallery business while earning a degree in art history at Ohio State and worked for Samuel Stein Fine Arts here from 1979 to 1991. When Stein retired, Bartlow bought the gallery from him. It has since operated on Michigan Avenue and at 44 E. Superior, and though it's now open only by appointment, he's planning to reopen with regular hours in River North this spring. He says he came in contact with the federal agents working on this investigation a year and a half ago when they came to him with some alleged Picassos they wanted him to authenticate.

Art historian and dealer Eva-Marie Worthington, a specialist in German expressionism and owner of the Worthington Gallery, says she was frustrated when she tried to blow the whistle on a fake exhibit that was making an international tour 15 years ago. She says she tried the FBI, but initially felt that no one wanted to listen. "It was very difficult for me to shut them down," she says, though eventually the show was canceled. There's nothing new about fakery—"the Romans faked Greek sculpture," Worthington says—but printing technology and the Internet have taken it to a new level. Buyers should beware forged signatures, useless letters of authenticity, phony provenance, and purported bargains. Fakery persists because "people don't want to get involved and there's nobody in charge," Worthington says, adding that we need something like "art police."

In the meantime, we've got the USPS and the FBI. The current investigation appears to be casting a broad net: late last month, in what the Tribune says is a related case, another dealer, Northbrook resident James Kennedy, was taken into custody in Florida, charged with threatening a witness. The U.S. attorney's office would neither confirm nor deny a connection.   

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