Hess Fine Art

Fine Art, Auction, Watch and Antique Experts Since 1984.
1131 4th Street North
St. Petersburg, FL 33701 (map)
(727) 896-0622 | 1-800-922-4377
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What’s It Worth? The Mother Of All House Call Stories, Pt. 2


We left off last Sunday with Frank Stella contacted, and planning to visit Sotheby’s to authenticate his painting the next day. Sotheby’s called me after the meeting.

“Frank says it is not his.”

They explained that an artist can disavow a work if he is not happy with it, and it will be deemed “not his” even if he did create it. (Our seller had mentioned that Stella gave it to his girlfriend partly because he was unhappy with it.)

Deflated, we called a lesser auction house, and armed with the seller’s letter of provenance, they said they would offer it as “Attributed to Stella” with a much lower auction estimate of $750,000 to $1 million.

A couple of days later, the FBI called. “Hello Mr. Hess, Frank Stella’s office called us. I am the special agent in charge of the art fraud department of the FBI in Manhattan and I need to talk to you about the fake Stella.” I gave him the whole story about the seller and sent him a copy of the letter of provenance from him. He told me that the piece was fake.

We reached out to our seller saying we needed more info, as we were going to offer this at the lesser auction, and with more detailed info we might be able to get $750,000 or more; and there would be a couple of hundred thousand dollars for him. And by the way, would you mind speaking to the FBI so they will get off our back and we can sell this thing?

The seller broke down and cried. Said HE painted it ... studiously using the same canvas maker, buying the same brand of paint, making a frame in the same manner and making it the exact same size. It WAS a fake!

I called the agent and told him the story. Gave him our seller’s contact information. A couple of days later, the agent called me laughing and said essentially no harm, no foul. The work was not signed. I was clearly hoodwinked. He had investigated this and no charges would be filed. And, by the way, he had viewed the painting and it was truly powerful. Would I donate it so he could use it in talks about art fraud and how good people and even Sotheby’s could be fooled?

I said, well, I am out over $15,000 here, but yes, I would be proud to take the tax write-off for a donation to the FBI and the United States of America to further art fraud awareness.

He said, “No; I want you to donate it to me. I will hang it in my home. But I will use it in my talks and such.”
“Um, no,” I said.

Result? I was out well over $15,000. I had egg on face, my house call guy was devastated, an FBI agent was mad at me, I’d inconvenienced my art dealer friend late at night to store the painting, Sotheby’s was now wary of anything I sent them (I use Christie’s more these days), and I didn’t have a dang vacation home in the south of France or a jet either. And the painting was still housed up at Sotheby’s and would cost me another grand or two just to get it back down here.

True story.

If you have an expensive painting –contemporary or antique – that you would like us to sell, let us bid on it.

Stop in or call 727.896.0622 for an appointment. 

Comments, questions or suggestions for this column, please send to jeffreyphess@aol.com.

St. Petersburg 1131 4th St. N, St. Petersburg FL 33701.

Ph: 727.896.0622

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Hess Fine Art - Fine Art, Auction, Watch and Antique Experts Since 1984

What’s It Worth? The Mother Of All House Call Stories, Pt. 2.PDF

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Publish Date: 
March, 2018