The Curious Case of African-Art Appraisal and Tax Fraud
Whether you believe anything art dealer and convicted tax cheat Sulayman Jarra says depends on whether you swallow his tale of the vanishing elephant tusks.
It's important to picture the 63-year-old soft-spoken Gambian telling the story with a straight face, as if what he's about to say not only could happen, given your understanding of the universe, but actually did happen. It's his explanation for how he came to be sued over the missing tusks in 1997 — just one of many lawsuits for broken consignment deals over the past 30 years.
This much we know: The tusks are magnificent specimens. One is 90 pounds and 6'3"; the other is 97 pounds and a foot longer. Jarra has appraised them at a total value of $15,000. They once book-ended a stoic stuffed lion in the living room of a couple's Museum District high-rise condo. The husband, who liked to shoot exotic animals and decorate his home with their body parts, has passed away, and his wife wants to clean house.
Here's what Jarra, reflecting on the incident roughly 20 years later, wants you to believe: His partner from New York, who is transporting the ivory tusks in order to sell them for Jarra's clients, is cruising along I-10 when his truck breaks down with the tusks inside.
Jarra's partner goes to look for help. This is pre-cell-phone-ubiquity. When he returns, he discovers his truck has been ransacked and some person or persons have absconded with all 187 pounds of African-elephant tusk. Goddamn Katy Freeway ivory pirates.
Ever apologetic, Jarra tells the woman who gave him the tusks on consignment what happened, and he presents her with a $10,000 check — a goodwill gesture.
"The next thing I know, that lawyer is suing me," Jarra says, sitting on a couch in his Montrose shop, the African Art Center. It's as if the woman somehow didn't believe his story.
Over the past 30 years, Jarra has found himself in quite a few "next thing I know" pickles. And in September 2013, he pled guilty to one count of tax fraud relating to a scheme involving the donation of African art pieces of dubious origin at hyperinflated values. In April 2014, Jarra was sentenced to three years' probation and ordered to pay $34,526 in restitution. His partner in the scheme, John E. Carter, was found guilty on five counts and is awaiting sentencing.
Yet Jarra has maintained a position of authority in the sale and appraisal of African art in Houston, selling art to, and appraising for, some very wealthy Houstonians. In addition to the criminal restitution, he has more than $200,000 in civil judgments and claims levied against him, but that hasn't seemed to hurt business. Staking out a niche in the art world can be lucrative, but just about anyone can make money off a masterpiece. It takes real skill to make money off junk.
Here's how the scheme worked:
Sometime around 2008, a tax preparer named John E. Carter bought a mess of African art — or at least stuff that looked like African art — for himself and at least four clients. Tribal masks, wooden statues, the works. He then prepared tax returns for those clients indicating that they had donated the art to one of three rather obscure organizations: the Brazos Valley African American Museum, the Brazos Valley Festival of African Art and the Dorchester County Library in South Carolina.
However, the tchotchkes were never actually in the clients' possession: "All four taxpayers testified at trial that they had seen only pictures of the art, not the art itself," Houston U.S. Attorney's Office spokeswoman Angela Dodge told the Houston Press in an email.
The amount a person can deduct for donated art depends on its appraised fair market value — the higher the value, the bigger the write-off. Carter just needed someone to appraise his clients' art at a high value and then sign paperwork that would be attached to their tax returns.
Enter Sulayman Jarra, who just happened to determine that Carter's clients were sitting on some real treasures: Jarra's appraisals ranged from $225,000 to $553,000. The respective write-offs ranged from $13,003 to $203,256. (Tax preparation appears to be more of a hobby than a career for Carter. He provided the service through his curiously named corporation, Midwestern Financial Group, which is just one of a handful of companies he set up with members of his family.)
But besides the overvalued donations, there was another problem: Charitable deductions can be claimed only if the donations are made during the taxable year, and taxpayers must actually own the art for at least a year before they're able to deduct a percentage of the fair market value.
According to court records, Carter and Jarra backdated documents to make it appear that Carter's clients claimed their deductions within those guidelines. In one case, Jarra claimed on one form that he had appraised a client's collection on December 11, 2007, the very day it was allegedly donated. The form also allegedly bore the signature of the representative of the organization receiving the donation. The only problem was, that person wasn't even employed by the organization until 2008. (Also, Texas Secretary of State records show that the Brazos Valley Festival of African Art forfeited its state charter in 2005 "for failure to satisfy franchise tax requirements" and had its tax-exempt status revoked by the IRS in 2010 for failure to file returns for three consecutive years. The organization has since been reinstated at both state and federal levels.)
"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.
"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.
"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.
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 me...so 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.)
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."
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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