The Curious Case of African-Art Appraisal and Tax Fraud

Appraising collectibles and filing the correct tax forms can be a tricky business, as convicted tax cheat Sulayman Jarra well knows.

"Based on the recollections of the prosecutor, there has not been a case like this in many, many years, if ever," Dodge stated in an email.

Dodge declined to discuss what had sparked the investigation in the first place, but according to court records, the prosecution sought to keep Carter from arguing that the Internal Revenue Service "began a criminal investigation of him out of bias or other improper motive."

Although Jarra's plea deal states that prosecutors could prove he had lied on multiple tax returns, he was charged only for one. Jarra admitted to the Press that he had backdated one form, but he maintains that the appraised value was legitimate.

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"I'm not like an idiot — I did know that it wasn't the right thing to do, but I didn't think it was going to be a big deal," he says. He adds later, "I made a mistake. But how many people do you know who've been in business for 37 years and never had any problems?"

Besides his backdating of one form, Jarra was tight-lipped about other aspects of the case in an interview three days before he was sentenced. He cited the pending ruling as a reason he couldn't substantively discuss his background, including his education and credentials. He maintained this minimalist approach even after sentencing.

However, he did speak freely about learning how to appraise from Lowell Collins, an esteemed Houston artist, teacher and appraiser of African art who died in 2003. (Collins's son, Michael, a local artist, declined to comment for this story.)

Carter's attorney, Wendell Odom, says his client prepared the tax returns "in good faith" and was partially duped by Jarra, who had presented himself as a true authority on African art. (A jury found Carter not guilty of one count of conspiracy.) In addition to being Collins's protégé, Jarra claimed on his résumé to have "lectured and consulted on African Art for many schools, universities, and various other organizations." He claimed he had strong ties to Texas Southern University's African art collections. (Jarra told the Press that he had facilitated the donation of roughly 90 percent of the items on display at the school's University Museum.)

He also claimed he had a PhD in economics and international affairs from Columbia University — something Odom found out wasn't true at the trial, when, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office, Jarra testified that he had never obtained such a degree from Columbia.

"Dr. Jarra, you realize, is not Dr. Jarra," Odom says. Unfortunately, he alleges, Carter didn't discover until too late that Jarra "had neither the credentials nor the ethics to do what he was supposed to be doing."

Here's what Jarra was doing circa 1980: He was selling ­African art out of a room at the Greenway Inn motel off U.S. 59.

To Jarra's business associates in the early 1980s, 2525 Southwest Freeway, "Suite" 112, was the headquarters of Jarra International Association. Jarra had the address printed on the association's checks. It seemed official enough.

Astonishingly, this was not unusual for Houston's African art trade at the time, according to a local African art collector who asked not to be named. Even today, the collector explains, impromptu "shops" pop up in hotel rooms.

Collectors would line hotel hallways, awaiting their chance for a crack at finding an authentic tribal treasure, perhaps a centuries-old Yoruban fetish mask beside the mint on the pillow.

"At the time, it was sort of exciting, and it was exotic," the collector says, "...but it was also kind of a buyer-beware scenario, because the only way that you were actually going to acquire something that was real and that had potential value was [if] you knew. If you were trusting the guy in the hotel room to advise you, you were going to get scammed. Every time."

John Buxton, a Dallas-based appraiser of African art with 35 years of experience, says the African art trade in the United States consisted largely of dealers (also known as "runners") who would first sell their items in Europe and then usually hit New York City, operating out of warehouses. From there, they'd move across the country. In the earlier years — the 1950s through the 1970s — there were a lot of knowledgeable, honest dealers, Buxton says. (Buxton is a member of the International Society of Appraisers and the Antique Tribal Art Dealers Association. He has also been an appraiser for Antiques Roadshow for 17 years.)

"And then it just got worse and worse, and by the time the '80s and '90s came around, it was just all junk," Buxton says. "I can't tell you how many collections that I've looked at where, you know, the people just had...tons and tons of stuff that they bought from these African runners, and they thought, 'Well, these guys are Africans...they know African art, so I believe them.'"

By that time, Buxton says, some runners weren't just bringing in junk — they were bringing fakes.

"They would listen to what Americans wanted in an object, and then they would make it tailor-made," he says. Say, a tribal ­figurine that historically would have been only 14 inches would suddenly morph into a 48-inch humdinger.

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