This week's feature is the account of an alleged art heist conducted by an art gallery in the Heights. Over a dozen local and Texas artists claim that Heidi Powell-Prera and her mother Sandy Bernstein, the owner/operators of H Gallery on West 19th Street, have been scamming artists for the last several years. These artists claim that the gallery has reneged on promises to pay them their share of works sold through the gallery.
Gallery scams are not that rare. We found about ten from recent years. Here are a couple of the more notable ones.
Locally, there's the Hart Galleries, an Uptown auction house that specialized in antiques. Almost two years ago, husband and wife owners Jerry and Wynonne Hart were sentenced to 14 years in prison after pleading guilty to misapplication of fiduciary property of more than $200,000. District court judge Randy Roll even chewed them out from the bench: "Mr. Hart, you are a thief in a suit. Mrs. Hart, you are a thief in a dress," he thundered. It was quite a fall for the Harts, who were once bold-faced names in local society circles.
But even though Jerry Hart admitted that he had been "robbing Peter to pay Paul" in an antiques Ponzi scheme that cost victims by some estimates upwards of four million dollars, the convictions have now been voided and a new trial ordered. The foreman of the grand jury which indicted the Harts was later heard on tape expressing gratification about signing their indictment as he felt it was vengeance for having been ripped off by the Harts years earlier. Quite naturally, the Harts' attorney thought that might show a little bias on the grand jury's part. No date for the retrial has yet been set.
One of the more elaborate scams we found took place in and around New Orleans and also involved the upper crust. In 2008, then 35-year-old Christopher Breithoff and his mother Constance Breithoff were sentenced to prison, almost a million dollars in restitution payments and other punishments after pleading guilty to mail fraud. A reporter at their trial said the courtroom was full of affluent friends of the Breithoffs, at least one of whom laughed at a victim's testimony.
Prosecutors proved that for six years beginning in 1999, the Breithoffs purchased paintings of Louisiana landmarks that purported to be the works of emerging local and regional artists, but were in fact purchased from China in cut-rate bulk lots. These were then sold at drastic markups, primarily to tourists, at two art galleries, one in suburban Mandeville and the other on chi-chi Royal Street in the French Quarter.
Mama Breithoff went so far as to concoct artist identities, biographies and unique signatures of the allegedly Cajun Asians in her stable. In some cases, she would daub over the signature of the Chinese artists with one by her own fictional painters -- which one account gave as having names like "Falgot, Shanta, S.A.M., and Michel."
We're not sure how this scheme unraveled, but we're imagining that a buyer or two got curious about the emerging regional artist whose work they bought and Googled them, whereupon they would find nothing other than what the Breithoffs had to say.
The feds alleged that only a tiny fraction of the Breithoffs' victims ever came forward, either out of ignorance of their scams or simple shame at having been taken.
Lastly, there's the 2010 case of Lawrence Salander, gallerist to Manhattan's high and mighty, a guy who bilked John McEnroe, Robert De Niro and a who's who of the city's fine arts elite. Salander was branded the Bernie Madoff of the art world, and schemes he was convicted of included selling art he didn't own, lying to investors, submitting bogus loan applications, falsifying records and selling the same painting to multiple buyers. Before it all came crashing down, Salander was hiring private jets and living in a lavish Manhattan townhouse.
Heidi Powell-Prera and Sandy Bernstein are by all accounts a long way from that plush lifestyle. The material value of the art in question is smaller by several orders of magnitude. And yet, at bottom, if the allegations against them are true, they have done the exact same thing Salander did, at least in spirit.
In writing this week's feature, we found ourselves sharing some of the same thoughts that the writer of this Art Daily feature about Salander set down:
Was it all a great con from the start? Or did Salander, as some suggest, cross to "the dark side" of the art world, taking advantage of a strangely unregulated place where priceless works are often consigned to galleries with little more than a handshake, where trust is as important as receipts?
"Larry Salander took that which is the essence of the art world -- relationships -- and violated it in the worst possible way," says Ellyn Shander, a psychiatrist who lost her late father's art collection to Salander. "He is a sly, manipulative sociopath, a con man with no soul."
Perhaps H Gallery's Sandy Bernstein and Heidi Powell-Prera aren't as bad as Salander. Maybe they just got in over their heads. Maybe they really do intend to pay all the artists who claim to be owed money. Bernstein promises to do so in our article.
But on the other hand, Houston's a big town, full of people who dream of escaping their drudgework jobs via their artistic aspirations. What's more, artists have fragile egos and if the stereotype is true, not money-hungry people, not the kind to go to the mat and wrestle away a bone unjustly snatched from them. And hell, nobody likes to admit it when they get taken. Maybe Powell-Prera and Bernstein just thought their good thing could go on forever.