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.

He also describes Jarra, whom he has known for 35 years, as "a very kind and generous person."

Stephen Zimmerman, the owner of La Colombe d'Or, says he has also bought pieces from Jarra over the 35 years he has known him. Jarra also rented commercial space from Zimmerman.

"I've never had any chicanery or problems; everything I've bought has been authentic...and more than worth the value."

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Zimmerman says he has met "a lot of people that he's done business with, and they speak very highly of him." He says he has also spoken with professors at Texas Southern University who were "very pleased" with Jarra's expertise.

Unfortunately, no one we contacted at Texas Southern felt like sharing his or her very pleasing Jarra experiences with the Press. Both Alvia Wardlaw, the curator of the TSU University Museum, and past curator Sarah Trotty declined to comment.

A university spokeswoman told the Press in an email that TSU "has worked directly with federal investigators in assisting their investigation. The University has never been a target of any investigation and is never involved in appraising gifts, determining values, or in any individual's tax filings."

Ultimately, it's difficult to gauge just what was achieved by the prosecution of Jarra and Carter.

Carter is not scheduled to be sentenced until June. In the meantime, outside of appraising art for tax returns, Jarra is able to go about his business. No criminal charges have been filed against any of Carter's clients.

Buxton finds the whole thing puzzling. At least, he says, prosecutors could have asked for a fine in addition to the $34,526 restitution. (Jarra filed for bankruptcy two weeks before he was sentenced; the filing indicates that Jarra already owed the IRS $24,000.)

"Can you imagine being able to go out and represent yourself to be a PhD expert in African art," Buxton says, "and to pretty much be able to get away with it with impunity for a number of years...and after all this, what is this guy going to get? He's going to get a slap on the wrist?"

He adds, "What did they possibly do that, number one, deterred anyone? What did they possibly do that...made some people whole that were defrauded? Nothing."

Of course, Jarra doesn't see it that way. To him, the criminal conviction, like the lawsuits over vanishing art, is an anomaly in an otherwise pristine four-decade career.

"I treat everybody so well," he says, ostensibly still unable to understand why anyone would be so bitter as to sue him. He can't help it if a bird-topped Bobo mask doesn't sell as swiftly as a client had hoped. He can't help it if ivory bandits are prowling major thoroughfares.

It's a tough business. Sometimes the market is hot and tribal masks are selling like hotcakes.

Other times, a collector will look at a mask and see right through it.

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