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.

"Because Americans wanted big pieces, with lots of scale...they wanted pieces that were kind of jazzy," Buxton says.

By 1995, Jarra had ditched his motel digs, as well as the Jarra International Association moniker, for a nice Rice Village storefront he called The African Trader. (The motel's owners would later bring a $12,561 claim against Jarra when he filed for bankruptcy in 1998.)

It was there, in 1995, that Jarra met attorney Bernard Hebinck and his client, the woman who wanted to unload her elephant tusks. Two years later, when the tusks still hadn't sold, Hebinck's client demanded that Jarra return them. But according to Hebinck and his client, instead of providing the ivory, Jarra provided a vast array of excuses. In 1998, Hebinck's client won a $20,000 ­judgment.

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This is Hebinck's version of events: After several months without seeing a cent of the judgment, Hebinck did something he says he has had to do only two or three times in 56 years of practicing law: He leased a truck, and with a Harris County constable, served a writ of execution on Jarra. As two movers loaded the vehicle with fertility dolls and Nigerian tribal stools, Jarra scrambled to find some money. He managed to cough up about $6,000. But Hebinck said he wouldn't unload the truck until he saw more. For months, the art sat in a warehouse. Hebinck says Jarra still has an outstanding balance.

Jarra's version of events is this: After the tusks were stolen out of his partner's truck, he gave Hebinck's client a $10,000 cashier's check. But for some reason, the woman still sued him. He's still perplexed.

"They just don't like me, for some reason," Jarra says.

Instead of honoring the judgment, Jarra filed for bankruptcy. Creditors came out of the woodwork. Between back taxes, old mortgage and rent obligations, and art collectors who signed pieces over on consignment, Jarra faced more than $200,000 in claims. This included artwork signed over by well-respected Nigerian artist Prince Twins Seven-Seven and a wood-and-copper Bakota figurine owned by prominent Houston architect Harwood Taylor. Taylor's widow, Kiko Kikkawa, told the Press that the piece once belonged to German writer and artist Hermann Hesse. After placing it with Jarra for consignment in 1989, she says, she never saw it again.

It's not uncommon for consignment clients to get impatient — or downright greedy, Jarra says.

He speculated that that's what might have happened to another client, Hugh Alexander, in 2000. Alexander says his saga began with, of all things, an episode of Antiques Roadshow. He and his wife, Carolyn, watched a Houston woman named Robbie Lee — who at the time owned a shop called the Black Heritage Gallery — selling African art pieces that seemed similar to the items they had inherited from Carolyn's father, who had traveled extensively in Gambia. The Alexanders were up to their eyeballs in masks, spears, shields and ivory carvings. Sixty-three carved heads. The stuff had to go.

Alexander says he called Lee; she referred him to Jarra, who by that time had relocated to an office at 3400 Montrose. (Lee declined to comment for this story.)

After inspecting the Alexanders' collection, Jarra offered to buy it for $5,000, with $1,000 up front. The parties agreed. Court records show that Jarra's subsequent checks bounced. He disappeared — Alexander says Jarra didn't return calls and even seemed to avoid going to his shop, which Alexander said he staked out on several occasions in order to speak with Jarra. As with Hebinck's client, the Alexanders won a judgment and seized several items from Jarra's shop whose retail prices were roughly equivalent to the judgment. Alexander says a subsequent appraisal revealed the confiscated items "were worth crap." He says Jarra still owes him. (He doesn't blame Lee for introducing him to Jarra; he says Lee tried to help him track Jarra down when he got burned.)

Alexander's attorney and friend, Robert Singer, says that "in a sense, [Jarra] had the last laugh, because he got a bunch of valuable — valuable — artifacts...and we got firewood in exchange."

Robert Sakowitz, a Houston businessman whose grandfather founded the eponymous department-store chain, was another client who won a judgment against Jarra after Jarra didn't follow through on a consignment deal.

Court records show that Sakowitz signed over $31,900 worth of items — including a Bateke fetish figure, a Yoruban temple column, a Bapende ceremonial funeral mask and a zebra-skin rug — to Jarra in 1995. Their contract called for Jarra to either sell the property "within a reasonable time period," return it or purchase it. He eventually opted to buy the items, but court records show that Jarra's first check was returned unpaid. Sakowitz ultimately obtained a $31,825 judgment against Jarra.

Oddly enough, Sakowitz's name was one of a handful Jarra provided when the Press asked to speak with satisfied clients or friends.

"He has endeavored to pay me back," Sakowitz says. "It has taken a very long time and it still is not complete, but he has endeavored to make periodic payments to that is the positive thing I can say for him."

But others had higher praise.

Jim Gwinn, an architect who has bought pieces from Jarra and who has also hired him for appraisals, calls Jarra "the most qualified African art appraiser in the United States of America." (Gwinn believes the only reason Jarra is not a member of the International Society of Appraisers or any other recognized appraisal membership organization is that he'd rather not pay the steep dues.)

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