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Crimes of the Art

On this week’s art crime blotter: artists demand their work back from LA’s bankrupt Ace Gallery, a billionaire collector realizes she’s been missing a Picasso since 2009, and art dealer Perry Rubenstein is arrested and charged with embezzlement.

The exterior of Ace Gallery's Beverly Hills location (photo by @ace_gallery/Instagram)
The exterior of Ace Gallery’s Beverly Hills location (photo by @ace_gallery/Instagram)

Crimes of the Art is a weekly survey of artless criminals’ cultural misdeeds. Crimes are rated on a highly subjective scale from one “Scream” emoji — the equivalent of a vandal tagging the exterior of a local history museum in a remote part of the US — to five “Scream” emojis — the equivalent of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum heist.

Royal Flush for Ace Gallery

crimes-of-the-art-scream-4Artists and collectors are demanding artworks, profits from their sales, or both following the takeover of Los Angeles’s bankrupt Ace Gallery by an accountant and bankruptcy trustee. The change of leadership happened earlier this month after Douglas Christmas, the gallery’s founder, failed to make a court-mandated $17.5 million payment to settle his debts.

Verdict: Something tells me that, for Ace Gallery artists, there will be no Christmas this year.

Where’d My Picasso Go?

crimes-of-the-art-scream-2Manhattan billionaire Wilma Tisch is suing Miami-based art dealer Kenneth Hendel for attempting to sell her Pablo Picasso painting “Tête,” which she hadn’t realized had been missing from her home since 2009. Tisch’s lawyer believes her ex-maid stole the work and sold it to a man who in turn offered it to Hendel. The latter consigned the work to Sotheby’s in 2013, but it never found a buyer.

Verdict: When Picassos turn up missing, têtes will roll.

Dealer Arrested Over Bungled Prince and Murakami Sales

crimes-of-the-art-scream-4Gallerist Perry Rubenstein was arrested in Santa Monica, charged with three counts of grand theft by embezzlement, and held on $1 million bail over allegedly violating contracts and keeping proceeds from sales in three transactions. The first involves a Takashi Murakami scroll that Rubenstein sold to the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation for allegedly far less than the minimum price set by the seller. The other two cases involve Richard Prince works consigned to him by Creative Artists Agency co-founder Michael Ovitz; Rubenstein allegedly sold them for far less than the agreed-upon prices, keeping the proceeds for himself.

Verdict: A cautionary tale to aspiring art dealers — don’t double-cross two of the biggest collectors in your city.

Studio Worker Got Rich Stealing “Afghan Girl”

crimes-of-the-art-scream-2Bree DeStephano, a former employee in photographer Steve McMurry’s Pennsylvania studio, pleaded guilty to selling stolen editions of his iconic “The Afghan Girl” photo and other images through a gallery in Colorado. In her plea bargain, she copped to making just $214,000 from sales of the stolen prints, though she was originally charged with flipping the photos for more than $600,000 (see Crimes of the Art #16).

Verdict: What was DeStephano thinking? Only one person can profit from McMurry’s romanticized images of poverty.

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