Victims of art fraud describe personal, financial toll

UNEASY: Brooklyn artist John Crawford, son of Ralston Crawford, retrieved his father's paintings from Lawrence Salander's gallery.
UNEASY: Brooklyn artist John Crawford, son of Ralston Crawford, retrieved his father's paintings from Lawrence Salander's gallery. (Bebeto Matthews/associated Press)
By Helen O'Neill
Sunday, October 24, 2010

NEW YORK -- In an uptown bistro, not far from the studio where as a child he watched his father paint bold abstract masterpieces, Earl Davis contemplates the greatest loss of his life.

Not his beloved father, Stuart Davis, who died in 1964 when Earl was 12. Nor his father's work, which Davis, an only child, spent three decades trying to document and showcase. Even the loss of the millions of dollars that the paintings were worth -- Davis's inheritance, swindled from him in the cruelest fashion -- is not what hurts the most.

The biggest loss, Davis says, was the love and friendship of the man he trusted with everything -- his confidences, his dreams, his father's life's work.

Even now, several years after the unraveling of one of the most elaborate art frauds in history, Davis has nightmares about confronting Lawrence Salander. Why did the art dealer spend decades cultivating his friendship even as he sold more than 90 of the father's paintings behind Davis's back, dismantling a collection that Davis had sought to preserve? What of those endless, richly satisfying conversations about art and philosophy and life? Was any of it real?

The same anguished questions have tortured dozens of other victims -- from celebrities to wealthy collectors to artists and those managing their estates -- defrauded of $120 million by the man some call the Bernard L. Madoff of the art world.

Earlier this year, Salander pleaded guilty to 29 counts of grand larceny and fraud. In August, he was sentenced to six to 18 years in prison. In court documents and testimony, the 61-year-old Salander outlined his schemes: How he would sell art he didn't own, sometimes peddling the same painting or shares in a painting to two or more buyers. How he falsified records, lied to investors, submitted fraudulent loan applications, sold paintings that were for exhibit only, and pocketed the money to pay for private jets, his multimillion-dollar Manhattan townhouse, his 66-acre Upstate estate.

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?

Ellyn Shander, a psychiatrist who lost her late father's art collection, calls Salander "a sly, manipulative sociopath, a con man with no soul." But others describe Salander as a misunderstood visionary who was passionate about great art, who ultimately felt betrayed himself by the backers who once believed in him.

"Was he a cheat? Yes. Was he ruthless? Yes," says artist Paul Resika, who exhibited with Salander for 19 years and lost much of his work. "But he did tremendous things for art."

'Part of our life'

Shander's eyes glow as she sits in her Stamford, Conn., home and describes growing up in a house filled with art. The tiny figurative piece by Modigliani. The vivid Monet seascape. Small Picassos and C├ęzannes. "They were part of our life," Shander says. At the gallery, Shander remembers a genial man who embraced her father, physician and collector Alexander Pearlman, as they strolled through rooms filled with paintings -- American modernists such as Marsden Hartley and Albert Pinkham Ryder as well as works by Matisse, Rembrandt and El Greco. Her father, Shander says, loved Salander like a son.

After Pearlman died in 2004 at 91, Shander and her sisters felt relieved when Salander drove to Pearlman's home and loaded the collection into a van "for safekeeping." It was the last they saw of their father's art.

"He walked in all concerned and crying for my dad, and he walked out with a $2 million-plus art collection that he stole. What kind of human being does that?" Shander says.

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