The undercover police officers who ran the Operation Highroller fake fencing operation out of a $1,500-a-month suite in the Shoreham Americana Hotel appear to Have been stung themselves.
While buying antiques, luxury cars, stolen securities and other contraband from professional criminals, the undercover officers paid $13,000 for two paintings that an experienced art appraiser says are worth only one-tenth that sum.
Both paintings are on masonite and are not antiques. One, called "The Secret," shows two old men whispering. The other, titled "Lust for Life," shows Uncle Sam seated dejectedly on a giant's hand.
"'The Secret' resembles a 19th century genre scene of the Munich school, though, of course, it's new," said Russell E. Burke, an art historian and appraiser. "At auction it would bring between $400 and $600. The other picture, 'Lust for Life,' would fetch somewhat less."
Both pictures are "Schlock," according to Burke, who has worked as an adviser, price estimator and catalog writer for Washington art auctioneers Adam A. Weschler & Son and C. G. Sloan & Co. "You might call them slick motel art, or technically proficient kitsch"
Both paintings were done by artist Joseph Dawley, 40, who described himself yesterday as "the biggest painter in New Jersey."
Neither painting was appraised by the Operation Highroller undercover police officers before they bought them with part of the $169,000 they spent acquiring stolen goods from "sophisticated thieves."
"We knew they had been stolen during an armed robbery in Verona, N.J.," said Mertropolitan Police Insp. Robbert L. Zink. "They were among five paintings that had been insured for $125,000. When we deal with stolen art, we generally accept the value given by the complainant. If you want to know more about the casw, take a look at the Verona-Cedar Grove (N.J.) Times of Nov. 23, 1976."
The weekly Verona-Cedar Grove Times, which has a circulation of 1,600, reported last November that two Verona art dealers, Alan Schechyuman and Alfred G. Trafton III, had been robbed at gunpoint "of five paintings by artist Joseph Dawley valued at $125,000. Also said to be missing is a painting by Van Gogh for which no estimate has been released."
"I won't talk about insurance, and I won't talk about the Van Gogh," Schechtuman said yesterday. "But I can tell you that Joseph Dawley is one of America's foremost artists. Some of his paintings sell for $25,000."
Schechtuman, 29, runs the Josef Gallery, an art gallery and frame shop in Westfield, N.J. "I own a lot of Dawleys. I'm pretty much his exclusive agent."
"'The Secret' and 'Lust for Life,' yes, I painted them both," Dawley himself said. "I paint in the Renaissance style."
He said three books have been published on his art: "Painting Western Characters," "The Painter's Problem Book," and "Character Studies in Oil." All three are by Joseph Dawley, as told to Gloria Dawley, the painter's wife.
Dawley said his shows "sell out," although none of his pictures are in the collections of prominent museums. "The museums have swung so far toward modern art, my paintings can't get in."
Dawley, who during the 1960s drew "Chief," a nationally syndicated comic strip - "sort of like Broom Hilda, only about Indians" - said his paintings bring "high prices."
Dawley says "The Secret " is worth "about $5,000. But I wouldn't give you anything for 'Lust for Life.'"
He said the prices for his paintings are set by Schechtuman, his dealer. Schechtuman said, however, that Dawley sets the prices.
According to Schechtuman. "The Secret" is worth about $8,500. He said the value of "Lust for Life" is $10,000, "because it is so rare."
Highroller was the third fake police fencing operation revealed during the past year. The first two - dubbed The Sting and GYA (Got Ya Again) - resulted in the arrests of more than 300 people, most of whom were street thieves who brought the fence items such as typewriters and stolen credit cards.
Highroller was designed to catch higher class thieves dealing in merchandise like antiques and works of art. Police would not name the suspect who sold them Dawley's two paintings.
Both paintings now are in a police department warehouse now on Shannon Place SE where Burke examined them. "Who would steal such paintings?" Burke asked. "Sure, they're decorative, and some people like that sort of thing, but they have small resale value. Schlocky pictures of that sort are peddled by the hundreds on Third Avenue in New York.
"Sophisticated art thieves steal paintings for two reasons. Either they ransom them to insurance companies for, say, a quarter of their value, or they peddle them in Europe to collectors who will purchase well-known works of art even if they're hot."
Verona, N.J., police reported that Schechtuman and Trafton were robbed by two men who taped the eyes of their victims, handcuffed them together, and then locked them in the bathroom of Schechtuman's high-rise apartment.
"I didn't own the stolen paintings, Schechtuman did." Dawley said. "Collectors who admire my paintings often insure them for a lot of money. Schechtuman owns many of my paintings. I figure he was lucky. The crooks didn't have the best of taste. They missed some of my best works." CAPTION: Picture 1, There is disagreement over the value of these two paintings, now in the police property warehouse here after their purchase by Operation Highroller police for a total of $13,000. "The Secret," above, is valued by the artist, Joseph Dawley, of New Jersey, at $5,000, by his agent at $8,500 and by art historian and appraiser Russell E. Burke at $400 to $600.; Picture 2, "Lust for Life," below, is rated at not worth "anything" by the artist, at $10,000 by his agent, and at less than $400 to $600 by Burke.