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Selling fake art — I’m innocent!

The time was April 1986. I had just received a target letter for selling fraudulent art and I was trembling in my boots.

“I might be going to jail,” I thought. I sat across the desk looking at a high powered criminal attorney.

I handed him a check in a large amount and he said, “Now we can talk. When did you know you were selling fake art?”

“I don’t know. No one has proven they are fraudulent yet,” I said.

“This is the wrong answer! I see I have a lot of work to do.”

“What do you mean? I am just telling the truth.”

Then he explained. “They will twist your words. You need to know what you are saying. You can not offer information unless they ask for it.”

“Why not? I don’t have anything to hide,” I said. “The sheriff wanted to see me, I went to his office and he was very nice to me.”

He retorted, “Listen, no one is your friend, but me. You have no friends. The sheriff thinks you are hanging on to information they need, the company wants to hang it on you and the clients want to hang you. You are in big trouble. Don’t talk to anyone but me. The way you are going you will hang yourself and save them all the trouble.”

I had just entered a world of criminals. I told the attorney I didn’t think the way of a criminal. Somehow, I thought I would be exempt. After all I was a Sunday school teacher, surely they wouldn’t think ill of me.

Wrong.

“They are going to eat you alive,” my attorney said to bolster my confidence.

I had become successful in sales because I worked hard. I was not getting a kickback, which they wanted to believe. A nightmare had started and it was not going away for a long time and it was looking like I might be going away for a long time.

The trial was scheduled for January 1987 and this was May 1986. I was still working with the company, and spent all my time answering the phone and explaining to clients what I knew and didn’t know. Other salesmen with the company left town, I had no where to run. A class action suit was filed by the clients against the brothers and owners of the gallery.

I gave my notice June 14, 1986. I needed to separate myself from the company; I was not a part of them. This only brought a bigger division between the company and me. They were hanging me out to dry and my attorney was right: every one wanted my neck. The sheriff thought I had inside information necessary for their case. I felt completely alone. My only friend, my attorney, was charging me a bundle every time he picked up the phone.

Al and I hashed the details over and over. We didn’t see the signs before this came down.

A representative from “60 Minutes,” a television show called. Andy Rooney asked if I would go on TV and explain to the world what was happening and I could defend myself. Everyone wanted to know.

My attorney’s advice was, “I wouldn’t. You will have your fifteen seconds of glory, but you can’t afford to do that. The trial is coming up soon.”

I didn’t offer my pitiful case, but one of the owners of the gallery decided to talk to “60 Minutes.” He began to cry and the cameras loved it.

“Why is this man crying?” was the title of the feature that Sunday evening. Oh, brother, talk about showing yourself. It became daily news and newscasters were not going to let go of this juicy story.

Six of the clients went on the show to tell the world how we milked them out of a lot of money. They were very convincing.

The brothers previously had come to Albuquerque once a month for an investment seminar, and sold the clients on investment art, giving certificates of authenticity from the company. But now they were saying, “Betty is an independent contractor and we didn’t tell her the art was investment art, she misrepresented the company.”

“What?” I defended myself. “The signed and number prints were selling between $1,600 and $5,000. The company set the prices. If the prints weren’t real, then they were just posters and not worth more than $29.95. I only said what I was told. How could they say that about me? How could they turn on me that way?”

It was no time to be defensive. It was no time to worry about how and what everyone was saying. I learned to read watermarks on paper. I learned more about the print market. I learned about criminal law. I learned about con artists. I learned that money can take wings and fly away, and I learned I was in way over my head.

Dali was still hanging on to life. Experts claimed Dali had signed blank paper before the edition was printed, but quit signing blank paper at the end of 1980. We were selling artwork, and the question remained, was this artwork actually signed by Dali? The sheriff was pressing and believed that these prints were printed in someone’s basement and someone else signed Dali’s name.

Experts came to the trial. I had been groomed for months by my attorney. The trial lasted three weeks. I was called to the stand for two grueling days as a star witness. Television picked up the trial and we were seen all over the country, bigger than life.

My friends in Pagosa called to say, “I saw you on TV.”

“Oh no, everyone knows now,” I thought. “How am I ever going to live this down?”

I did and I am alive and well today to tell about it.

The brothers were charged as felons with a big fine. No one went to jail. The 40 galleries closed one by one until the company did not exist. Other bigger galleries selling Dali’s art were under investigation. The brothers maintained they were innocent and someone else was to blame.

I wonder if anyone is ever innocent. I did not have a clue about selling fake art, but the success of making money and climbing to the top caught me up into a world of con artists.

Salvador Dali, the Spanish surrealist painter, died Jan. 23, 1989 just two years after the trial in Albuquerque. It has been said that Dali’s hand stretches above the ground and is still signing blank paper.

Did I learn the lesson I needed to learn?

I don’t think so.

In 2004, Al and I along with our children and other people smarter than us invested in a bowling alley in Pagosa Springs. It was an offer too good to pass up. You all know the rest of the story. A con artist conned us all out of money and the town of Pagosa is the one that lost. We still do not have a bowling alley. Need I say any more?

Final brushstroke: Trust that the lessons learned are more important than the mistakes made.

Artist’s quote

“Believe that problems do have answers, that they can be overcome, and that we can solve them.” — Norman Vincent Peale.

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