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.)

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Contributor Craig Malisow covers crooks, quacks, animal abusers, elected officials, and other assorted people for the Houston Press.
Contact: Craig Malisow